Obama’s War

The presidents of the United States have enemies and wars of varying intensity and duration. They can have several at once, but one enemy in particular always ends up defining their presidency. If Roosevelt had the war against Hitler, Truman against Kim Il Sung, Johnson against the Viet Cong, Bush Sr. against Hussein, Clinton against Milosevic, and Bush Jr. against Osama bin Laden, then Obama’s privileged enemy is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Not Gadhafi, nor Assad, nor Putin, but Baghdadi. The war that is beginning against the Islamic State, known in the past as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, will be Obama’s war — forever.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the idea of a quick and limited intervention through precise operations against specific objectives in Iraq in order to debilitate the terrorist group that has the world on edge was an illusion. It was clear — and Obama knew better than anyone, hence the distress signals he was sending — that the nature of the conflict didn’t permit half-hearted measures. Either the United States avoided the conflict altogether, hiding behind the argument that, for the moment, there was no direct threat against the country, or it assumed the responsibility of leading the West in a new military adventure, regardless of scale, number of allies or support from international law. From the moment that Obama gathered his courage and, against the instincts that advised him otherwise, decided to intervene a little, he sealed his political destiny: a war of his own.

And here we are some weeks later, horrified by the gruesome spectacle of the decapitations of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, by an Islamic State militant whom the British Secret Service believe could be the rap singer L. Jinny, an Englishman with Egyptian roots raised in West London. One of the thousands, it is estimated, of European citizens that have immigrated to ancient Mesopotamia to join the cause of Baghdadi’s caliphate. The dynamic of this clash has followed a predictable course: threats, provocations, acts of horrifying violence under the justification that the American bombings initiated the conflict with the West, and, finally, the leading power’s response, prodded by a public opinion that is beginning to shake off its apathy and, with honor and dignity, is now asking Obama to step up.

Obama still doesn’t know what to do. He said so with complete clarity when, a few days ago, he admitted that he doesn’t have a strategy that allows for the bombings of Islamic State positions in Syria, where the organization has a powerful base, without whose destruction, according to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, it will not be possible to detain Baghdadi. But let’s not fool ourselves: The actions of the United States and its allies are momentarily cautious, hesitant and, yes, limited, but that doesn’t mean they will be so indefinitely. This is now Obama’s war, and he has no other option but to wage it in some form.

The president is evaluating how to fight the war, discussing with his military counsel the most efficient manner of attacking, evaluating with his diplomats how to summon the participation of allied countries, and debating with his political advisers how to make it fit within the electoral calendar that approaches: the legislative election in November and, two years later, the presidential election. In both, the Democratic Party’s prospects, already weakened by the current government’s lack of popularity, could grow much darker if the management of this war doesn’t receive approval from the general population, giving way for the Republican Party to tear the tenant in the White House to pieces.

Three big problems make Obama’s decisions even more difficult.

The first is the lack of information he possesses regarding the Islamic State, whose rise was meteoric and whose implantation in Syria and northern Iraq took the world by surprise. It is thought that the Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants in both countries (in Syria, they speak of 50,000, but the number appears exaggerated). The West also has information regarding the psychological profile of Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph, as well as a fairly well-formed idea about the abundant financing the terrorist organization receives. This funding does not proceed principally from Gulf state donations, although it does receive something from them, but rather from the vast amount of territory the Islamic State possesses. Within its lands, the terrorist organization extorts money by collecting taxes on countless people and companies, as well as by intercepting the delivery of oil and gas, which it then sells to intermediaries. But much more than that is not known.

This deficiency of information has been noted in the contradicting and confusing messages that various U.S. leaders have given. For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have spoken of a group “as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen,” the rise of a “trans-regional and global” threat, and the necessity of a Syrian intervention. However, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen, Obama’s key man within that intelligence specialty, has been trying for days to play down the events: He confirms that there is not a threat to U.S. territory, nor a potential new 9/11 attack.

This last announcement could be part of a political tactic to reduce anxiety. It would make sense, since Obama, who hasn’t defined what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, needs some space. However, the information gaps are blatant. In the Pentagon, it was thought with certainty that Baghdadi had cells in Europe and perhaps also in Asia, similar to the ones al-Qaida possessed before the Twin Tower attacks, but the United Kingdom, like other European governments, has filtered information that minimizes this possibility. For now, according to them, the actions, problems and objectives of the Islamic State are concentrated in the theater of known operations.

Obama’s second big problem could be described as a geopolitical and diplomatic “theater of the absurd.” It has to do with the fact that the Islamic State has converted into tactical allies of the United States and the United Kingdom (the two western countries in direct conflict with the terrorist organization) those who yesterday were their enemies, and who, in certain ways, continue to be so. Among them is the Syrian dictator Assad, to whom Baghdadi has declared his hatred through a direct threat to liberate the Caucasus (the same goal possessed by the Islamic terrorist groups that operate in that region, especially the Caucasus Emirate). Invading Syria to fight the Islamic State would involve coordinating forces with Assad, thereby strengthening the regime responsible for more than 200,000 deaths, a regime that last year both Washington and London wanted to bomb. It would also entail coordinating forces with Russia, who supplies Assad with weapons from the naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

How could the United States join forces with Russia in Syria if this week, at the NATO summit in Gales, Obama and his Western allies launched, in view of Putin’s practical invasion of Ukraine, the creation of a rapid response force to prevent future advances by Moscow into territories of what used to be the USSR?

With refreshing candor, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday, alluding to this absurd dilemma: “In the past just simply saying ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has led to all sorts of moral quagmires and difficulties.” He refers, of course, to a long list that includes having supported the mujahedeen against Russia and Hussein against Iran. Both beneficiaries of the U.S. economic and military support ended up as Washington’s enemies. One of them was al-Qaida, fed by many mujahedeen ex-combatants. The United States has an expression for this: “Blowback.” Latin Americans know its implications well. One of them was Manuel Antonio Noriega, a salaried CIA agent in his day and later a drug trafficker, Fidel Castro’s ally, and scourge of Washington.

Could the United States attack the Islamic State in Syria without the consent of Assad and Putin? In theory, it could. In practice, it would be very difficult, not only for military or political reasons, but also for judicial ones. The U.N. Charter offers two possibilities for a military intervention in another country. One, included in Article 51, says that a country can act in self-defense or invite third parties to help it. Another, reflected in Article 41, demands a resolution from the Security Council. If Assad doesn’t give his consent, the United States would have to utilize the decapitations of U.S. citizens and other elements of that nature to justify “self-defense,” a tenuous argument from a judicial point of view. On the other hand, the possibility of receiving Putin’s support in the Security Council, if Washington acts without Assad’s consent, is nonexistent.

The third big problem involves the military: How to destroy the Islamic State with only aerial bombings? The last thing Obama wants is to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Iraq (and even less to Syria), to go through the same ordeal that George W. Bush did. Cameron said this week, with another display of candor, that it is not possible to have a military presence in another country without the support of the “local people.” Everything indicated that the U.S. soldiers would be received “as liberators” in Iraq, according to what Dick Cheney predicted in the times of Bush. But the reality turned out to be more complex. The result was a war that still has not ended (the new war against Baghdadi is, in a certain way, a prolongation of the former). Sending soldiers to fight against the Islamic state doesn’t just mean taking many risks and incurring enormous expenses that the U.S. tax payers cannot sustain, but also, probably, means stretching the comprehension of the U.S. public beyond what is possible. The electoral price could be devastating.

But without a massive ground presence of soldiers, what can be done? That is precisely what the Pentagon military commanders are evaluating, with the help of the 1,200 men that they already have in Iraq (350 were sent this week) in various security, consulting and intelligence missions. The idea, as it is thought in Washington, is that the bombings could facilitate the local forces, especially the Iraqi army and the Kurds, who are most directly threatened by Baghdadi. But the permanent Iraqi troops offer little guarantee of success. That’s not to speak of the risk that in a messy situation it wouldn’t be the permanent troops, but rather the radical Shiite militias that could theoretically end up benefiting from the U.S. air intervention.

Today, all of this populates the increasingly grey-haired head of an Obama that has entered into war. He, who thought he had gained the power to end them.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply