Repeating Bush’s real mistake

Anyone still under the impression that the Obama Administration has laid out an adequate strategy to defeat what it prefers to call the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) need only read Secretary Kerry’s op/ed in this morning’s Boston Globe to be convinced otherwise. His formula for success is this:

  • air attacks, no US boots in combat;
  • reduce the flow of foreign fighters;
  • cut off funding, initially by preventing oil sales and eventually by taking back the territory ISIL controls (thus preventing extortion and tax collection).

Missing here is any clear sense of how territory retaken from ISIL will be governed. It won’t matter how many countries join the coalition of the willing Secretary Kerry is building if that gap is not filled.

In Iraq, there is at least an implicit concept of post-conflict governance:  a more inclusive government in Baghdad should allow the Sunni-populated areas now in ISIL control to govern themselves. That is the implication in particular of Prime Minister Abadi’s effort to organize National Guard forces on a provincial basis. But success will require far greater generosity in revenue and power sharing with the Sunnis than Abadi has so far shown.

Iraq’s Sunnis will not be easy to satisfy. Many continue to believe themselves more than 50% of the population (there is no evidence of this, and lots of evidence to the contrary) and prefer to rule in Baghdad rather than in the provinces. While arguing for democratic ideals, many Sunnis in Iraq are really dreaming of a restored but more benevolent dictatorship. Their Shia brethren are going to allow that.

In Syria, the Secretary’s concept is far more tenuous:

By degrading the Islamic State and providing training and arms to the moderates, we will promote conditions that can lead to a negotiated settlement that ends this conflict.

The problem is that the moderates are so weak after three years of battering by both Bashar al Assad’s regime and Islamic extremists that they are in no position to take much advantage of American air strikes. It will be months if not years of training and equipping before the Syrian Free Army and its allies can redress the imbalance and begin to govern in liberated areas. A negotiated outcome in Syria that meets the American goal of beginning a democratic transition is impossible without also beefing up the civilian Syrian Opposition Coalition, which will take time and money.

Without a serious answer to the question of how areas liberated from ISIL control will be governed, the air attacks risk creating a vacuum that extremists of one stripe or another will inhabit as a safe haven. They also risk spreading the cancer they are intended to cure. American military victories over the past decade did not end the threat but spread it: from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Yemen, from Iraq into Syria and back into Iraq, from Libya into Mali. Metastasis is the usual course for malignancy, not the exception.

The Obama administration wants to avoid what it regards as the Bush Administration’s mistake of using ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that was not the big mistake. We won both of those wars. What we lost was the peace that followed, by being unprepared for the vital statebuilding tasks that are required when defeating an insurgency.

ISIL is not just a small group of terrorists, as President Obama claims. A counter-terrorism strategy will not suffice. It is an insurgency that aims to collapse the state structures in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond. This insurgency cannot be defeated without replacing the governance it is now providing. That was where the Bush administration failed. It looks as if the Obama administration will repeat the mistake.

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One thought on “Repeating Bush’s real mistake”

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