This morning CBS is reporting that only 23% of Americans think President Obama has “a clear plan for dealing with ISIS.” Let’s first of all put that kind of question in perspective. Since when does a Commander-in-Chief publicly broadcast his plan for defeating an enemy? I’ll grant you that, following the Paris attacks, it is probably time for the President to update the American public on his overall vision for dealing with ISIS. But I can also guarantee you that when/if he does, it will simply be dismissed by those on the right as weak tea. So I doubt it would change the conversation much.
But President Obama does have a plan. It involves understanding ISIS. From the beginning, we knew that they had a very different approach than al Qaeda. Here’s how Graeme Wood described it:
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
That’s why, just before the attacks in Paris, President Obama said that our initial goal was to “contain” them and that we were seeing some success in doing that. In a fascinating article in Frontline, Katie Worth talked to several experts to understand why that is important. Here is how Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained the end game of containment:
Its [U.S.] containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.
“ISIS gets a lot of its money by taking the wealth of the places it captures, and we’ve held them back from any major conquests in the last months, so right now they’re squeezing blood from a stone, economically speaking,” said Berger. “That’s not something they can do indefinitely, so if they reach a tipping point, we could see ISIS collapse in a very short amount of time. The problem is we don’t really know how long that will take to happen, and a lot of bad things can happen between now and then.”
Notice the part about allowing ISIS to fail due to its own internal problems rather than as a result of the actions of a “foreign oppressor.” That is also why, as we’re hearing reported primarily in right wing media lately, the bombing campaign against ISIS has been tedious in its attempts to avoid civilian casualties.
When asked to address Royce’s statement, a Pentagon official defended the Obama administration’s policy and said that the military is furiously working to prevent civilian casualties.
“The bottom line is that we will not stoop to the level of our enemy and put civilians more in harm’s way than absolutely necessary,” the official told the Washington Free Beacon, explaining that the military often conducts flights “and don’t strike anything.”
This strategy takes into account the ultimate aim of ISIS as described by Harleen Gambhir.
The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone [where Westerners and Muslims co-exist] themselves…Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize …or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”…Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.
Initially ISIS used the brutal murders of Western hostages to incite the kind of reaction that they hoped would lead to an apocalyptic war. But as Worth reports, they are now not only struggling economically due to containment, they no longer have hostages with which to exploit the West.
The experts Worth talked to basically agree with people like Zack Beauchamp and Robert Pape that the success of this containment strategy is why we are now seeing ISIS shift their focus to attacks like the ones we’ve seen recently against the Russian airliner as well as in Beirut and Paris. Due to the fear-mongering about Syrian refugees and Muslims in general by Republicans and our media, this new strategy seems to be working pretty well so far.
In addition to that, talk about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” or sending a U.S. led ground force against them carries its own consequences that also haven’t been thought through very well.
And a second issue is if you went in with force and took their territory away from them, you’re freeing up tens of thousands of fighters who are currently involved in policing the Islamic State, securing its borders, running checkpoints — all those guys are free to do terrorism then, if they don’t get killed in the attack,” Berger said.
This is why, amidst all the noise we’re hearing lately, it is important for us to continue to call on our leaders to be smart on terrorism. The experts are telling us that ISIS is in the midst of changing tactics due to the success of President Obama’s containment strategy. If we’ve learned nothing else from the Paris attacks, it is that a similar incident in the U.S. would be extremely toxic, given our current political climate. The best way to prevent that from happening poses an interesting dilemma for liberals because it likely depends on gathering good intelligence. The President says we can do that while still protecting our civil liberties here at home. We all have a lot riding on him being right about that.