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Politics: Obama’s Iraq is not the same as Bush’s

Our columnist dissects and defends Obama’s strategy against ISIS

With the recent announcement of President Obama’s strategy on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), congressional Republicans have been quick to question its ‘credibility and comprehensiveness’. Others akin to Robert Kagan question Obama’s aversion to conflict. What many seem to miss is that Obama’s Iraq is not similar to Bush’s.

Consider this: Post 9-11 Iraq was held together by a secular authoritarian regime who allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction. Invigorated by post-trauma nationalism, President Bush invaded Iraq and promptly discovered that the bulk of effort involved nation building rather than military dominance.

Obama’s Iraq is more convoluted. For starters, ISIS is not a state but rather a destructive extremist organization that has fought across Syria into Iraq. This means that more people, especially within the region, want ISIS gone in comparison to Saddam. The fight is more ideological and political than traditional conflicts. Militaries can topple regimes but they cannot build stable states. The Obama administration knows that no one wants ‘boots on the ground’, but also that charging into the fray is misguided. Unconventional security crises demand unconventional responses; there is no doubt that U.S. military superiority could cripple ISIS in the short term, but Obama must look for long term solutions. Unless regional states throw their weight into the effort, taking down ISIS will only inspire mimics and prolong underlying fracture points.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but waiting until now for Obama to outline a plan of action has forced other actors to pick a side. France and others are signing onto the effort as the crisis worsens; more importantly, regional actors like Iran and Saudi Arabia are expressing interest and fighting ISIS. Unlike Bush’s Iraq, ISIS creates fertile ground for a multilateral operation as well as a pathway to remove some diplomatic hostility between participants. This opportunity is one that should not be passed up by the Obama administration. Repeating President Bush’s unilateral military actions will compound the problem.

As it stands, the formal strategy is to supply humanitarian and military aid to Iraq as well as Syrian freedom fighters  while also training local forces to fight insurgencies. These measures will be coupled with tactical strikes at key areas like Iraqi dams.

Understandably, many find this strategy disconcerting. As Senator Ted Cruz remarked, “The objective should be to protect the United States and to destroy the terrorists who have declared jihad on our nation.” Of course no one questions the moral obligation to fight ISIS, but the larger question looms – how do we go about fighting ISIS? What many, including Cruz and Kagan, overlook is the value of patience. Regardless of how the next several months go, ISIS will hate the U.S. and will vow to destroy it, but the chances of truly destroying ISIS unilaterally or through military superiority are infinitesimal. Waiting has proved fruitful as more traditional and non-traditional allies are lining up to join the effort against ISIS. Defeating ISIS requires that Obama focus on political elements as well as having regional actors carry the bulk of the fighting while Western states provide support. Anything else is doomed to fail; and at the end, Obama can claim to have led the coalition to victory.

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