THE BLOG
09/17/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2014

Six Big Problems With Obama's New Anti-ISIS Strategy (Or, Why It May Already Be Too Late)

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

Nearly a week has passed since President Barack Obama at last announced his tardy strategy for dealing with Isis, the jihadist organization Obama now calls a huge threat only months after dismissing it as the "junior varsity" of jihadism. There's been no shortage of activity, as distinguished from action, from the Obama administration.

Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of big questions and problems prompted by all that activity. And that's before getting to the deeper problem: It may all be too late.


The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that more boots on the ground will be needed to defeat Isis.

** In his speech last week, Obama announced that nine other NATO members are joining the US in the still emerging anti-Isis fight. But one of the most important of those nations, Turkey, promptly announced that it will not participate in operations against the Al Qaeda offshoot. Nor will it allow any such operations to be staged from its very well-situated territory against he world's richest terrorist organization, now controlling over a third of what has been Iraq and Syria.

As for the others in the supposed alliance, military commitments are few and far between, though the French say they're in and Australia will contribute a handful of attack aircraft. Even Britain isn't on board for military action yet.

Of course, NATO proved unable to take down Moammar Gadaffi's not especially impressive military even after the US knocked out the Libyan air defenses. Only further US intervention saved the day. Well, "saved the day" until the ballyhooed "Friends of Libya" coalition of nations, who pledged to bring the former dictatorship into the 21st century, forgot about their commitments as the country collapsed into widespread anarchy.

** Obama also announced that there would be a big Arab component to the effort, without being specific. Secretary of State John Kerry then worked furiously to fill in the blanks at an emergency conference in Saudi Arabia, emerging to announce that 10 Arab nations will take part in the fight against Isis.

Not so fast. It turns out that they merely signed on to a declaration full of weasel words. In fact, it's not clear which, if any, of these countries will actually participate in military action against Isis. Jon Stewart just had some nasty fun with the Obama administration over this.

"Oh really, [our] Arab partners [against ISIS] don't want to be named. ... So you'll join the coalition as long as no one knows you're joining it. On the DL. Just as long as none of your buddies find out. It's like our coalition is your hookup. You pretend not to recognize us at parties but as you walking by us, you go: 'I'll see you in Kurdistan at 3 am.'

** The only thing that's really clear from Kerry's diplomacy in Jeddah and Riyadh is that the Saudis will host a US training center for fighters. Fighters in the Syrian civil war against the Assad regime, that is.

Not that it is not heartening to note that the Obama administration has succeeded in getting the Saudis to do what they want to do. Which is to say that we're doing it for them. Who says diplomacy doesn't work?

The Obama administration actually got really excited about this. We shouldn't get so excited till the Saudis serve our agenda, not vice versa.

** So Obama is once again being pulled into the strategic tangent that is the Syrian civil war.

John McCain noted that administration's strategy suffers from a "fundamental fallacy." It presumes that the Syrian rebels will prefer to fight Isis instead of Assad. Which makes no sense.

** One concrete development is that we are sending several hundred more military advisors to Iraq, while saying all the while that this does not constitute the proverbial "boots on the ground."

Actually, it probably does, albeit on a small scale. I know from observation in the Philippines that military advisors are more like athletic coaches than study hall tutus. You want to see how your charges perform in the field, against real opposition. In a war, that puts advisors in harm's way, in combat situations. It would be foolish for them to be unarmed, since the opposition would like nothing better than to kill some American troops, the more famous the better. And it's just a couple of short, fast steps from the advisors observing their pupils in action to providing hands-on tactical counsel and shooting back in firefights.

** Which brings us to the big question about big numbers of boots on the ground. Obama didn't just declare that the mission is to contain Isis, he said our aim is to "degrade and defeat" it.

But comments at a summit in Paris and in Washington testimony by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey express the gravest doubt that air strikes alone will roll back am Isis grown powerful during months of neglect from the US and its supposedly eager allies.

Boots on the ground will be required to carry out Obama's express aim. Lots of them, not just commandos and military advisors.

Where will they come from?

From Kurds mostly interested in securing their own state? From the beleaguered Shia-centric Baghdad government, barely hanging on to its core constituent territories? From Syrian rebels suddenly more interested in defeating their anti-Assad allies in Isis than in defeating the Assad regime they rose against? From NATO, which avoided troops on the ground in its Libya project?

We seem to have ruled out working with the Iranians and the Syrians. And we're at loggerheads with the Russians, who have repeatedly expressed interest in taking on jihadists but, perturbed over Ukraine, are probably happy to see Obama twisting in the breeze back in Iraq. And what of the Israelis, who some around Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu say will supplant Britain as America's most important ally? They aren't in the picture, for obvious reasons. The Arab street would react, er, negatively if they were.

Gee, that would seem to leave, well, us. The good old US, that is.

I don't see any real support for that.

Which seems to lead to a rather bleak conclusion.

William Bradley Archive