Wanted: A Middle East strategy
May 20, 2015
Today at a news conference House Speaker John Boehner remarked, “Last week, we passed a strong bill to support our troops, and ensure that the Congress and the people have the ability to review any potential agreement with the Iranians. And with new gains made by ISIL [the Islamic State] in Ramadi, we know that hope is not a strategy. The president’s plan isn’t working. It’s time for him to come up with a real, overarching strategy to defeat the ongoing terrorist threat.” He explained, “The president’s request for an authorization of the use of military force calls for less authority than he has today. I just think, given the fight that we’re in, it’s irresponsible. This is why the president, frankly, should withdraw the authorization of the use of military force and start over.” He reiterated, “We don’t have a strategy, and for those of you that come to these regularly, for over two years now I’ve been calling on the president to develop an overarching strategy to deal with this growing terrorist threat. We don’t have one. And the fact is, the threat is growing faster than what we and our allies can do to stop it.”

Boehner is in good company. Former defense secretary and CIA director Robert Gates agrees, telling MSNBC, “I think our interests are enduring, but I certainly don’t think we have a strategy.”

It is hard to have an alternative when you won’t admit the strategy you are pursuing is not working. I’m not sure what it would take to get the Obama administration to acknowledge we are not accomplishing our goal of degrading and ultimately destroying the Islamic State. Must Iraq lose even more cities or the Islamic State spread to a few more countries?

Unfortunately, the president is not willing to do what a number of military commanders and outside experts have recommended, namely augmenting the boots on the ground already there with sufficient troops to provide adequate intelligence, forward spotting and training for Iraqi forces. Hillary Clinton surely isn’t offering her advice. But in fairness, Democrats are not the only ones burying their heads in the sand.

I asked aides to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has long insisted airpower alone can defeat the Islamic State, whether he had changed his mind and now recognized that a larger number of U.S. forces were required. One aide (incorrectly) denied that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended ground troops and insisted “a real air campaign (and by real campaign he means 200 sorties a day)” could work. Other than slaughtering many more innocents, the problem with ramping up airpower alone is that we lack people on the ground to identify meaningful and sufficient targets and, moreover, no credible military authority thinks airpower alone will work. (They have powerful proof what did work based on the Iraqi surge and our experience in Afghanistan. Airpower alone has never defeated this kind of insurgency.) It is also noteworthy that Cruz opposed enforcement of the red line that might have tipped the civil war and/or inflicted real damage on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So, the Islamic State is now entrenched in Syria, making the war that much more perilous (and signaling to Iran we are entirely feckless).

So we don’t want any new strategy; we want one that is designed to win as expeditiously as possible. A body of experts seems to agree that a contingent of less than 20,000 would certainly help. We know military commanders urged the president to utilize a ground contingent. But perhaps there are other ideas. Congress cannot play commander in chief, but it can organize hearings. It should do so forthwith, with an eye toward critiquing our progress and exploring alternatives. Unlike President George W. Bush, who created such a process and came up with his own strategy shift (the surge), this president will require substantial pressure to course-correct.

Congress therefore should get cracking, inviting a wide array of current and former military commanders, including retired Gen. David Petraeus, and other gurus on counterinsurgency to assess the current circumstances and provide advice. And if we really want to test the 2016 presidential contenders — including Clinton — we should ask them whether the current strategy is working and what we can do to reverse it if, as it certainly seems, we are at best treading water.