Thursday, September 11, 2014

A sharper reader?

"Chicka chicka boom boom, will there be enough room?" Not included as snark, this is a really great book. And a sharp reader has broad tastes. Photo by Getty Images.
Professor Cole asks a question you might not have seen coming:
What if Obama is a sharper reader of the Middle East than his critics give him credit for? He knows ISIL is likely not going away, just as, after 13 years, the Taliban have not. US military action may even prolong the lifetime of these groups (that is one argument about AQAP) even as it keeps them from taking more territory.

Don’t listen to his expansive four-stage program or his retooled, stage-managed John Wayne rhetoric. Look at his metaphors. He is telling those who have ears to hear that he is pulling a Yemen in Iraq and Syria. He knows very well what that implies.
From a technical literary standpoint, of course, you can't ignore the rhetoric and attend to the metaphors at the same time (like, "Don't pay attention to the colors, notice the red and yellow!"). And I think he might be being unnecessarily pessimistic. But if the point is that the strategy the president unveiled last night was rather smaller in scale than it sounded, and that that might be a good thing, then yes.

Bombing the Caliphate troops in Syria is a totally different proposition from what bombing Assad's troops last year would have been; they're out in desert country in the east, on their own, same as in Iraq, not clumped up in cities and mountain areas in intimate association with a multicultural civilian population, and the decision to do it is not anywhere as big a deal diplomatically since the Caliphate has no open international backers.

Other than that, the new approach isn't much different from the old one, just perhaps a bit more forceful diplomatically, getting the Iraqi parties to form a multicultural government (Cole is not entirely confident that this will work, and I may have gotten optimistic on it too soon) and creating a pluralist coalition, training and arming the Syrian "moderates" for whatever it's worth, and doing the diplomatic work, which now includes trying for a Security Council resolution.

I have a feeling Obama needed a new strategy more for the Congress and the press than he did for coping with the Caliphate, because of the video murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff (which are indeed horrible beyond imagining, but they aren't the only thing, and the activities of the Caliphate have been horrible beyond imagining for a while, but then you had to be a reading type of person to find out about it). Precisely because they're on video and they're about Americans, and Congress and the press are now officially freaked out. So Obama has to "do" "something" different from what he's been doing so far. In that sense yesterday's announcement was basically branding, as Cole suggests.

No editorial reason for this, just wanted to hear it.

Of course there's always more. According to Michael Gordon in the Times:
“This is also going to be an ask of the Egyptians — to have the Sheikh of Al Azhar and the Dar al-Ifta, their major Islamic seats of learning, to speak out against ISIL, although they’ve already done some of that,” added the State Department official, who asked not to be identified in accordance with the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters.
Uh, that's really brilliant. Since President Sisi has thoughtfully taken over the religious establishment, so he can commission them to do some pro-US propaganda. The whole Ummah is totally going to believe it. This reminds me irresistibly of the Reagan representatives going to give Ayatollah Khomeini a Bible and a (kosher) cake as one of those freshman concepts that needs a little work before implementation, like firing anybody who had any connection to the idea.

Less amusingly,
In agreeing to the American request to host training of the moderate Sunni opposition, the Saudis are trying to develop a force that cannot only confront ISIS, but can also undermine Mr. Assad’s hold on power and even maintain order if he is toppled.
Your Syrian "moderates" are not going to be able to fight both sides at once, even if they get really good, and I'm afraid Assad has to be off the radar screen for a while, especially since, as I keep saying, we are to hold on to the essential cooperation with Iran (which can't, however, be discussed outside the blogosphere).

Anyhow, if you want ISIL to go away, the Obama approach has more potential than any of the ones that have been tried so far. The Shock and Awe approach really does create new recruits to the enemy faster than it eliminates the old ones (in Iraq in 2003 there weren't any old ones; it was the bombing that created the AQ in Mesopotamia organization from which ISIL has grown in 2004, out of a minor Kurdish anti-Saddam organization and the one Jordanian refugee from Afghanistan). The only way to get rid of these theological mafias is for the local people not just to want to get rid of them (which may be a problem in itself) but to organize it themselves. "We" can't make them.

The Yemeni model doesn't sound like much, because it's relatively modest (and Obama's description of our Yemen and Somalia activities as "successful" really does stretch the facts somewhat further than I'm comfortable with), but it's far closer to tolerable than most of the other models floating around.

From a kind of pro-war site, Long War Journal; but if you trust them (their methodology looks at least not purposely dishonest), US forces are getting a lot better at killing only the people they want to kill in Yemen, for what it's worth.
Marco Rubio on NPR kept going on about how Obama should have "armed" the Syrian "moderates" a year or two ago, without seemingly being able to remember that that project was to help them overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, which they couldn't possibly have done, and this project is to help them defend themselves against Assad's most dangerous enemies (and thus indirectly benefit Assad himself, a horrible outcome in terms of justice but perhaps the best that can be done in terms of stability).

If Rubio and McCain had had their way, of course, they would have been assisting ISIS in the establishment of its Caliphate. Indeed, since the US did help to arm the Syrian "moderates", e.g. with some former Yugoslavian and brand new Croatian weaponry starting in November 2012, and these weapons have now turned up in ISIS hands, the militants having either stolen or simply bought them off the Free Syrian Army troops, it actually happened, as Kevin Boyd (among others) helpfully reminds us. The GOP approach has provided the Caliphate with some of its finest stuff.

Whatever you do, Mr. President, please try to make these people shut up! In a nice, constitutional way, I mean.

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