This piece was originally published in The Hill.
Moments after President Obama said last Thursday “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, we don’t have a strategy yet” he probably wanted those words back in his mouth. The partisan noise machine pounced. This, they said, was more proof that the president is Mr. Feckless. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) opined: “the fact that the president admitted he doesn’t have one should alarm every American.”
Obama was caught in the act of rhetorical calibration. Right after the gruesome beheading of James Foley, Obama and Secretary Kerry ramped up the rhetoric and described ISIS as a “cancer” that the administration vowed to “destroy” or “crush.”
Expressing a passionate desire for ISIS’s brutish ways to disappear from the face of the earth is simply a sign of sanity. But when the president of the United States or the secretary of State speak in the mano-a-mano terms of the World Wrestling Federation it hands ISIS a PR victory while it invites mission creep.
Perhaps out of a concern about mission creep the president appeared to – slightly – walk back the rhetoric. In a response to a question from the newly minted host of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, Obama said:
“Well, first of all, I want to make sure everybody’s clear on what we’re doing now because it is limited.
“Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected.”
The president’s definition of that limited mission is, sadly, more than a little disingenuous. The mission is clearly not simply the defense of Americans in the region – there are easier ways than a full on air war to protect or evacuate personnel in a conflict region. His rhetorical calibration may be a step away from a runaway escalation but the danger of mission creep still runs high. U.S. surveillance planes are flying over Syria as Obama refines Syria battle plans.
With or without a Syria battle plan, no one has a truly comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS. This is nothing new. Despite bipartisan support no one had a true strategy for Iraq when we invaded in 2003. That lack of strategy helped create the mess we are in today. Civil war grinds on in Libya years after U.S. led airstrikes. The president called the lack of comprehensive follow-on plans for Libya his biggest foreign policy regret.
Note to Congress: Military force is not a strategy. It’s a tactic. Mistaking battle plans for strategy is a bipartisan blind-spot that may be the Achilles heal of U.S. foreign policymaking. We need a strategic overhaul of tired “war on terror” thinking even as it makes a comeback on the back of ISIS’s rise. While the administration admits that “there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political one” military tactics still suck up too much of the air in the room. That’s true in the Situation Room, the White House Press Room, and the floors of Congress.
ISIS is a serious adversary to peace, and a threat that should neither be exaggerated nor ignored. But throwing trillions of U.S. dollars and thousands of lives at adversaries like al-Qaeda and the Taliban hasn’t destroyed them. Instead it’s sapped our economic strength and tapped our treasury dry. Months or years of airstrikes, in Syria and Iraq might roll back ISIS’s control of certain towns and cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers while it fuels the global ideology and recruitment from with the movement derives it’s strength.
What almost everyone knows deep down, and few in Washington want to admit, is that decades of projection of U.S. military might in the Middle East is a central strategic driver sustaining extremist groups. U.S. leadership of a quasi-unilateral military fight against ISIS is an egregious strategic blunder that must be reversed. Congress needs to debate any U.S. military attacks on ISIS. But beyond that they need to debate any U.S. military action’s costs, strategic downsides, long-term timeline and endgame. Most of all they should have the political guts and the wisdom to fully examine alternatives to a U.S. led military approach.
ISIS is a manifestation of a persistent ideology that has been woven into a loose network of extremists with global tentacles. It can’t be “crushed” because it’s not a building or “something over there”. When Congress reconvenes next month they should debate and support a truly comprehensive strategy. Any plan deserving of the S-word will emphasize international cooperation, public and multilateral diplomacy, shrewd community policing, carefully targeted intelligence, and moral leadership over this week’s battle plans masquerading as strategy.
Rainwater is executive director of the Peace Action West & The Peace Education Fund.
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