“An abject failure.”
Over the past several months, these criticisms have been hurled at President Barack Obama by an array of pundits and politicians for his policies designed to counter the militant Islamist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. As the 2016 GOP presidential field has burgeoned, the administration’s stance toward the conflict has proven an easy target for those seeking to score cheap political points and advance their statures on the national stage.
Such condemnations, however, especially from leaders lacking an adequately nuanced understanding of the historical and political dynamics characterizing the Middle East, not only detract from what should be a vigorous national debate but could prove detrimental to the future of American diplomacy. Incessantly repeating that the president is wrong fails to offer a viable alternative to address the greatest threat to international security since the emergence of Al-Qaeda.
Of course, it would be dangerously naive to assert that the current administration’s Iraq policy has succeeded. Obama’s rapid withdrawal of American troops left the Iraqi military well-equipped but lacking the discipline and loyalty to defend against insurgent threats. Moreover, the United States threw its support behind the corrupt and sectarian regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose failures inspired many Sunni communities to look elsewhere for authority. As the Islamic State waged a brutal campaign across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon over the past year, the United States conducted airstrikes while refraining from deeper involvement — a course of action contributing to the frighteningly rapid descent of black flags upon the region.
While current tactics are objectively insufficient, finding the best path forward takes more difficult consideration. The idea of introducing American ground forces to the conflict is gaining traction, advocated by some aspiring Republican 2016ers like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and George Pataki. Although enthusiasm for this prospect may be on the upswing, ghosts of wars past — specifically Operation Iraqi Freedom, originally estimated to last a year and require 100,000 troops — offer reminders that deploying U.S. ground forces in the Middle East is unlikely to produce the desired outcome. Arming the Kurdish peshmerga army is a similarly oft-discussed option, but policymakers must remember that fighting alongside the Kurdish defense forces are troops from the Kurdistan Workers Party or the PKK, an organization that U.S. ally Turkey designates as a terrorist group. Were the United States to authorize mass arms transfers to Kurdish fighters, it could anticipate a strain in relations and possibly an end to needed Turkish assistance.
Other seemingly feasible strategies to increase American engagement include expanding the scope of airstrikes and offering maximal advisory assistance to Iraqi army units, which would not violate a commitment to avoiding ground combat and could help develop Iraqi military self-sufficiency and confidence. The United States could adopt a greater leadership role in broadening coalition support among Arab allies, perhaps incentivizing participation through arms sales and economic arrangements. Outreach to Sunni tribes in Iraq and efforts to solidify relations with Egypt, Qatar and the aforementioned Turkey are instrumental in this regard.
Yet, rather than suggesting Obama adopt these relatively minor policy changes, critics appear to advocate a complete departure from current Middle East strategy, arguing that America must be more hawkish and assertive to force the Islamic State into retreat. This common rhetorical theme, however, is oversimplified to the point of obscuring the critical choices that an actual executive must make. Indeed, while lambasting the current U.S. doctrine, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio all dodged the question of whether or not they would send American soldiers to war.
In categorically attacking Obama’s overall approach in Iraq and Syria yet failing to provide specific alternatives, political hopefuls and commentators are doing a disservice to this nation, besieging rather than supporting its commander-in-chief in a time of crisis. Unfortunately, such a trend is unlikely to abate, for, in a seemingly ever-growing 2016 GOP field, knocking Obama’s foreign policy has become the candidates’ preferred means of advancing their respective images as they clamor for the spotlight.
Matthew Gregory is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service. He is the chair of the Georgetown University College Democrats.
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