Washington sticks with ISIS policy despite mounting criticism
Washington - Although his tone is tougher and his words sharper, US President Barack Obama seems wedded to his strategy to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) that his Republican critics, his former secretary of State and a majority of Americans say is insufficient.
During a visit to several Asian countries after the Paris terrorist attacks, Obama said the effort against ISIS would remain a “multi-year task” that requires diplomacy and an effort to build up local forces. He pledged that ISIS would ultimately be defeated.
Hosting French President François Hollande at the White House on November 24th, Obama toughened his rhetoric, referring to ISIS as a “barbaric terrorist group” that has a “murderous ideology” and said it “must be destroyed”.
Obama also mentioned recent gains against ISIS on the ground and said he was looking for ways to “accelerate” them by calling on more members of the anti-ISIS coalition to boost their contribution.
But with the French president at his side, Obama did not indicate any change in his administration’s strategy, which remains ordering air strikes against ISIS forces, providing logistics support and sending 50 US Special Forces members to Syria to help Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribes take offensive action against ISIS’s capital of Raqqa. The Pentagon is also training the Iraqi Army to retake key Iraqi cities.
US Vice-President Joe Biden recently convened a meeting in Washington that included foreign diplomats whose countries are part of the anti-ISIS coalition. Biden reportedly called on the coalition countries to intensify anti-ISIS efforts to include air strikes in Syria and Iraq. After the meeting, the State Department’s envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, emphasised the need for the coalition to coordinate “efforts and pressures” against ISIS “across its global network”.
Obama’s policies have increasingly been criticised. Former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey has called for the insertion of several thousand US ground troops, in conjunction with other countries, to take the fight to ISIS. Nearly all the Republican presidential candidates have said Obama should do more, though only long-shot candidate US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has consistently called for 10,000 US ground troops.
Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, characterised Obama’s strategy as “doubling down on the same failed policies that allowed for ISIS’s rise”. The Obama administration, he added, “ought to be laying out the broad, overarching strategy needed to win”. Royce called for the establishment of safe zones in Syria.
Safe zones also have been a central theme of former secretary of state and leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s position. She has not only staked out a more hawkish position than her Democratic rivals but she has also indirectly criticised Obama’s policies on Syria.
As for the American public, according to a recent CBS News poll, only 25% of Americans asked said that Obama has a clear plan for defeating ISIS, down from 35% in September 2014. Only 36% of poll respondents stated approval of the president’s efforts against terrorism overall and nearly 70% of Americans say it is “somewhat likely” that there will be a terrorist attack in the United States in the coming months.
Clearly, the Paris attacks and the fear that ISIS might infiltrate terrorists into the refugee population are having an effect on American public attitudes. Given this mounting criticism, one may wonder why Obama has not changed his anti- ISIS strategy. The main reason is that Obama believes the insertion of US combat troops would not only be counterproductive — drawing in more recruits to ISIS to fight the “Western invader” — but would eventually lead to a quagmire (like the Iraq war) that would involve US troops for an indefinite amount of time. In October, Obama said: “As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of an endless war.”
In this regard, Obama remains more in tune with the American public than his critics. Although the CBS News poll showed dampening support for his campaign against ISIS and that 50% of Americans said the United States should insert ground troops into Syria and Iraq, 83% of Americans say they are at least “somewhat concerned” that US military intervention in these countries will lead to a long and costly military engagement.
With about a year left in his presidency, Obama has revealed a certain political stubbornness. Believing his anti-ISIS strategy will ultimately work, and not wanting to cave in to his critics, he seems determined to stay the course. Whether this strategy will ultimately work, only time will tell, but it will not likely be known until after he leaves the White House.