The Thinker: Rich Galen


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ISIS Strategy: Stay Tuned

Rich Galen

Thursday September 4, 2014


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  • You know that I've sailed through pretty rough public relations seas with some high profile figures over my career.

  • That's why I can say with some confidence that President Obama's communications staff is already pining for the good old days before Labor Day when all they had to deal with was golf games and tan suits.

  • As an example, I had lunch the other day with retired New York Times reporter Adam Clymer who said he was surprised the "we have no strategy" comment raised such a furor.
    "Obama promised transparency," Clymer said. "He has no strategy for dealing with ISIS and he said so."

  • On a more serious note, with the brutal murder of a second American reporter, Steven Sotloff, at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) even the most war-weary of Americans recognizes that a strategy to deal with them is probably a good thing.

  • ISIS is not like al-Qaeda. Where al-Qaeda has focused on hit-and-run terror attacks - from pirated aircraft to suicide car bombs - ISIS has taken and held actual territory.

  • Where al-Qaeda was led by Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi Arabian construction billionaire, ISIS' leader goes by the stage name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who got his PhD from Baghdad University.

  • President Obama has been loathe to re-enter Iraq with ground troops after winning is first term on the back of his opposition to the 2003 war. Nevertheless, with his announcement Tuesday that he is committing an additional 350 ground troops to protect U.S. facilities and personnel in Baghdad, CBS News pegs the official total at 820.

  • That doesn't include special forces, CIA, and other U.S. government-sponsored personnel which might well take the number to over 1,000. While that is a small fraction of the 157,800 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008 (according to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress), if its your son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father it's a real number.

  • A military expert (of which I am not one) with whom I spoke over the weekend said that ISIS has control of what he called "The Five Ms":

  • He also suggested that the sheer might of the United States' military could reduce ISIS' control of land inside of Iraq along the Euphrates River in a "matter of weeks."

  • He said moving ISIS out of positions along the Tigris, like inside Fallujah, would be more difficult but "they are like termites: You can't ignore them or your house will fall down, so the best you can do is to control them and render them inconsequential."

  • But, he went on, "Syria cannot be a safe haven" for ISIS which is, as of this writing, something that is beguiling President Obama and his advisors.

  • ISIS gathered its forces and learned to fight in the Syrian civil war taking the battle to Bashir al Assad (as well as having been part of the insurgency in Iraq). Following ISIS into Syria might be seen by some as actually helping Assad under the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" theory of foreign policy.

  • But, it appears to me that we can take out our enemies sequentially - first ISIS and then Assad - and not violate the rule.

  • In a news conference in Estonia prior to attending the NATO summit in Wales the President said we would "degrade and destroy" ISIS. Tough words, but as the Washington Post's Katie Zazima wrote:
    "Obama gave no clear details on how the United States planned to escalate its pressure on the group beyond the current wave of limited airstrikes and efforts to forge a stronger international coalition against the militants."

  • To that end, Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, told CNN over the weekend:
    "We are putting the features in place, developing a broader regional coalition, a broad international coalition, working to get a new Iraqi government stood up, working to get our plans in place, so stay tuned."

  • Ok. We'll just wait.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to the bio of al-Baghdadi, to the CRS report on troop strength, to CBS News' account of new troops in Iraq, to the WaPo's report of the President's press conference and to the CNN coverage of the "stay tuned" remark.

    Also an interesting Mullfoto from Old Town Alexandria over the weekend.

    -- END --

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