One of the longstanding hobbies of politicians and pundits whose party doesn’t control the White House is barking vague foreign policy demands at the president. It’s one of the easiest ways to make the president — whoever it might be at the time — look in over his head. As the world’s lone superpower that has intervened politically, diplomatically, and militarily in countless geopolitical hotspots around the world since the beginning of the Cold War, the idea that the U.S. is obligated to throw its weight around when its interests abroad might be challenged is deeply ingrained in the American political psyche.
What’s going in Iraq and Syria right now is no exception. Americans have been horrified by the gruesome executions two of their journalists, as well as the plight of the Islamic State’s other victims, which are many. Airstrikes in Iraq ordered by President Obama have succeeded in containing IS in that country for the time being, but it’s not clear for how long. As expected, the calls for Obama to do something — anything — are growing louder and louder.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is a case in point. The piece is earnest and measured enough, but it offers only the usual clichés about needing to change course, “strengthen partners,” and “squeeze ISIS’ finances.” They vaguely suggest expanding the air campaign by bombing IS in Syria, while simultaneously saying Obama shouldn’t put boots on the ground in a combat role, but also that the U.S. shouldn’t work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iran to stop the IS threat. Instead, they say Obama should directly arm ragtag groups — “Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes, moderate forces in Syria, and effective units of Iraq’s security forces” — on the ground to do the dirty work for the U.S.
The op-ed is actually one of the more detailed prescriptions for what to do about IS, at least from what I’ve seen. And it’s still incredibly underwhelming as a strategy to deal with an enemy that’s conquered vast swaths of territory in short order, and one that’s driven by a radical Sunni ideology in which martyrdom is a supreme value. If IS is contained or even forced to relinquish some of the territory it’s gained, it’s not going to stop. It’s going to keep fighting. As I’ve said before, to defeat IS, it must be wiped out, totally. They want martyrdom, let them have martyrdom.
But I would be lying if I told you I know the best way to accomplish that. Yes, IS is a threat to stability in the region and freedom in general, but doing something for the sake of doing something just because we’re horrified by the deaths of two Americans or by the plight of the Yazidis and others IS has terrorized, is no way to commence a successful strategy to fight IS; nor is it any way to ensure a modicum of stability in the region after IS is extinguished. As the meltdown in Libya has shown once again, U.S. airstrikes plus arming rebel groups to help topple an enemy almost never goes according to plan. So let’s allow the president a little more time to build a coalition and formulate that ever popular “comprehensive strategy” with those in it to defeat this despicable menace once and for all.