After President Obama’s speech on Sunday night, the Republican presidential candidates were quick to criticize what he said. But what a lot of people miss is that, when pressed for specifics, their critiques are not so much about his plan to defeat ISIS.
Yet beneath their harsh rhetoric lies a fundamental political reality: Few in the Republican Party’s 2016 class would break significantly with the Democratic president’s approach to combating the Islamic State group. The avalanche of Republican criticism that continued Monday focused on the president’s tone, his word choice and the fine points of his plans — not in most cases the specific policy prescriptions he presented in his address from the Oval Office Sunday night.
This focus on tone and word choice is something we’ve been witnessing for a while now. So it was interesting to see that Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to actually propose a plan. It differs from what President Obama is doing in one key area…they want to send in U.S. ground troops to both Iraq and Syria. Not only that, they propose to keep them there indefinitely.
What we do want is additional U.S. troops to perform discrete tasks: improve and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, especially Sunni tribal fighters; embed with and advise Iraqi units closer to the fight; call in airstrikes from forward positions; and conduct counterterrorism operations. This will likely require two to three times as many forces as the U.S. has in Iraq now.
Ultimately, America must seek to keep these forces in Iraq. If they leave again, the threat will return, and the U.S. will have to intervene once more…
So the U.S. should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria. Such a force could also help to keep the peace in a post-Assad Syria, as was done in Bosnia and Kosovo. Here, too, if the West wins the war and leaves, it should not be surprised if violence and extremism return.
As a reminder, here is what President Obama said about that Sunday night.
We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.
But beyond what we should have learned about occupations from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are particular reasons why what McCain and Graham propose is exactly what ISIS wants.
A few months ago, Zack Beauchamp interviewed the man who literally “wrote the book” about ISIS – Will McCants. He points out that one of the ways that ISIS differs from other terrorist groups like al Qaeda is that they believe that their establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria is the beginning of an epochal battle with the “infidel” that will bring on the apocalypse.
After the victory of the Muslims over the infidel, they believe the world is eventually overrun by Gog and Magog, who will be familiar to folks who know biblical literature — basically wild men who will destroy the world.
And then we finally get down to the fire-and-brimstone stuff. The universe explodes, and all of the remaining sinners are gathered before God to face judgment at the final hour.
McCants goes on to say that this apocalyptic vision of a ground war with the West is a major recruiting tool for ISIS.
ISIS is trying to appeal more narrowly to young people who are attracted to violence and who seek to play a role in something larger than themselves. Whether that be the reestablishment of the caliphate, the apocalyptic end times drama — that’s the Islamic State’s recruiting pitch.
I am struck by the fact that McCain and Graham proposing to send U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria indicates that they are completely ignorant of how that would feed right into the goals of ISIS. That is likely why people like them tend to admire Vladimir Putin – they’re all embracing a 19th/20th century view that sees military conquest as the solution to every problem, while President Obama is developing strategies that address the challenges we face in the 21st century.
Update: General Paul Selva at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today:
“It’s clear from ISIL’s strategy that their objective is to cause us to engage in what they believe is an apocalyptic war with the West,” said Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “And anything that we do to feed that particular frame of thinking counters our national security…