Did Obama sell his ISIS strategy?

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Story highlights

  • Details of Obama administration's ISIS policy still murky, argues Julian Zelizer
  • Donna Brazile: President is forging a multinational coalition as novel as ISIS
  • Obama answered 3 a.m. phone call; if only he hadn't let it ring for 3 years, says Michael Rubin
  • Frederic Wehrey: Obama rightfully dismissed ISIS's religious pretensions
CNN asked for views on President Obama's speech, in which he outlined his administration's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including a campaign of airstrikes and a call for Congress to provide additional authority and resources to train and equip opposition fighters in Syria.
Julian Zelizer: Obama finally responds to his critics
President Obama heard his critics and now he has finally responded. After several weeks where Republicans and Democrats complained that the president was being too silent and too passive about the threat posed by ISIS -- and about what his administration planned do about this -- he capped off a week of speeches with this address to the U.S. Congress.
Still, although the speech offered some of the answers that the public has been waiting for, and established a framework for the debate to begin in Congress, the details of the policy remains murky.
Julian Zelizer
The president has vowed to defeat this rising force of militant fundamentalism with a "steady and relentless effort" but without using ground troops and while limiting the commitment of U.S. resources. It will be an operation, he said, more like Yemen and Somalia than Iraq or Afghanistan. He has explained that this will be a long-war, but he has not really outlined how the U.S. will know when it is finally time to leave other than the goal or their total destruction.
Moreover, the entire policy is contingent on the U.S. being able to forge viable alliances with rebels and nation-states -- a "broad coalition" -- whose support is tenuous at best, and whose own objectives don't always mesh with the goals of the U.S.
Now will be the time for Congress to rise up to this challenge (something many observers predict the dysfunctional institution won't be capable of doing) by pressing the administration with tough questions that fill in the details and by conducting a vigorous -- even if speedy -- public debate before handing over its consent to the operations.
But Congress should recall the kind of mistakes that take place when they don't seriously interrogate the arguments and strategy of a president.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."
Donna Brazile: Time for Congress to give Obama what he needs
Wednesday night, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, President Obama laid out a comprehensive, multi-tiered, multi-pronged plan to ultimately destroy not al Qaeda, which is weak and sluggish, but ISIL, a unique terrorist organization spawned by the internal Iraqi and Syrian civil wars.
ISIL (also known as ISIS) is a relatively new force. Its numbers are small, but it's media and tech savvy, using brutality to intimidate larger armies. It aims to establish an Islamic super state, in the process seeking to uproot the nation state system that has underpinned both Western and Eastern civilization for hundreds of years. Al Qaeda itself is ISIS's sworn enemy.
Donna Brazile
So the president is forging a multinational coalition as novel as ISIS. The nation states with boots on the ground -- the Arab states themselves -- are those most immediately threatened. Obama's plan involves military intelligence, U.S. airstrikes -- including within Syria -- and the training of Arab troops, including the Sunnis, Kurds, Shiites and others. The president's strategy employs every tool at the hands of the modern nation state, including withering the finances that support ISIS.
There is a strong political element to this struggle. "Politics," Harry Truman said, "is a noble art." Here, President Obama must nobly forge a consensus with a two-party system that has become more self-centered than patriotic, while simultaneously marshaling public opinion around the world. If the U.S. is serious about defeating the threat of ISIS, Congress will stop its petty nit-picking and publicity mongering, and provide President Obama the authority and resources needed to implement a strategy both sound and necessary.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America."
Will Marshall: A strategically vacuous speech
President Obama's speech was a characteristic exercise in foreign policy minimalism. He said just enough to convince the public he has a plan to defeat the Islamic State. But he said virtually nothing about how to win the long war against Islamist extremism that began 13 years ago tomorrow.
There's no doubt the president answered his critics tonight. They've demanded a strategy for rolling back the Islamic State; he gave them a plausible one. They've accused him of sounding America's retreat from global leadership; he highlighted Washington's catalytic role in orchestrating the world's response to ISIS's murderous rampage, Russia's aggression against Ukraine, and the Ebola outbreak. "American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world," he affirmed.
Will Marshall
The speech seemed calculated to shore up the public's sagging confidence in Obama's stewardship of U.S. foreign policy, and perhaps it will boost his numbers. Donning the mantle of Commander-in-Chief, he conveyed resolve in confronting the Islamist terrorists, while at the same time he was careful not to cross his own red line against reintroducing ground troops in the Middle East. That's a stance exquisitely calibrated to fit the public's current mood.
What was missing, however, was an account of where ISIS came from and how it grew so strong. The president neither defended nor offered second thoughts about his decision to disengage from Iraq and the Syrian civil war. Nor did he explain why demolishing al Qaeda has failed to turn the tide of battle against Islamist extremism, as he had hoped. About the ideology that motivates our enemies, he said nothing at all, except to deny it's really Islamic. He devoted all of one fleeting sentence to the need for America and the international community to more effectively counter the jihadist narrative that inspires young Muslims from Europe as well as the Middle East to commit atrocities in Islam's name.
However politically effective the speech proves to be, it was strategically vacuous. At some point, the president needs to focus on the larger war we're embroiled in, not just the next battle.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a left leaning think tank based in Washington.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: Obama found his stride
President Obama's speech was succinct, specific, and successful. On the details, he made three very important points.
First was the clear statement of precisely how the United States will use force: to take out direct threats -- ISIS troops and weapons -- and to support our partners on the ground in their fight. We are using force not to win outright in a way that leaves us responsible for an ensuing peace, but rather as a thumb on the scale to buy time and create space for the soldiers and citizens who must ultimately win both the war and the peace.
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Second, for those older viewers with memories of "sending in only advisers" to Vietnam, the president made absolutely clear that we won't fight side-by-side with a government that doesn't have the support of its own people, nor without a full complement of regional partners. This is a strategy of multilateralism that checks us by ensuring that we can't get too far out in front of the nations that must ultimately live with the consequences of our action, but that also checks their ability to free-ride.
Third, the president recognized that ISIS can't ultimately be defeated without ending the civil war in Syria, which will require a combination of force and intensive regional diplomacy to reach a political solution. But without that solution, the "Islamic State" will simply retreat to its territory in Syria and continue feeding off the terror and chaos there.
More generally, Obama found his stride and his voice in this speech in a way we haven't seen for a long time. He set forth a workable and sensible strategy to defeat ISIS and he linked it not only to U.S. security, but to a deeper sense of who we are as a nation and what we seek to accomplish in the world beyond saving our own skins.
For so many of us, standing "with people who fight for their own freedom; and [rallying] other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity" is a core part of what it means to be American. Living up to those values, or at least trying, is ultimately our greatest security and strength.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of the New America Foundation. She was director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011.
Michael Rubin: Coalition may end up being our Achilles' heel
Finally, President Obama answered that 3 a.m. phone call; if only he hadn't let it ring for three years. Let us now hope that Obama backs his rhetoric with sustained action. The United States has every right to target terrorists who target America, wherever they may be. And Obama seems to have finally recognized that the Islamic States' defeat -- and not simply its quarantine -- should be the goal.
That goal, Obama seems to acknowledge, does not conform to artificial timelines. Obama also pays lip service to the fact that the radicals' ideology -- and not simply their grievances -- forms a major part of the problem
Michael Rubin
That said, Obama may not understand just what is necessary to defeat terror. He cites Somalia as a model. Somalia is a safer place now than a decade ago, but that's not because of pinprick American airstrikes, but rather a full-fledged occupation by the African Union.
And while reliance on allies looks good on paper, the reality can be different. Turkey has become Pakistan on the Mediterranean, saying one thing to American diplomats, while facilitating the influx of foreign jihadis into Syria behind our backs. And trusting Saudi Arabia to take the lead on de-radicalization is like asking arsonists to be volunteer firefighters. The plan looks good on paper, but the coalition might be our Achilles' heel.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington DC.
Frida Ghitis: Can U.S. beat ISIS without helping American foes?
A fascinating aspect of the strategy Obama announced is his effort to try to defeat ISIS without strengthening America's foes.
That has always been one of the most difficult problems for the U.S. as it faces the conflict in Syria and now in Iraq: Can Washington line up an effective offensive CAMPAIGN against ISIS without bolstering the Shiite regime in Iran? Can ISIS be defeated in Syria without handing a victory to President Bashar al-Assad, an enemy of ISIS but also a ruthless dictator? Can the U.S. help push ISIS out of Iraq without strengthening the Shiite-dominated, and Tehran-friendly, political establishment in Baghdad?
Frida Ghitis
The plan attempts to thread that needle. If the contents of the speech are to be believed, the administration has rejected suggestions that it should temporarily set aside its concerns about Iran's regional dominance, about the Sunni-Shiite balance of power, and about al-Assad's continued hold on power -- all for the sake of defeating ISIS.
Instead, Obama said the U.S. is ramping up support for moderate Syrian forces fighting al-Assad, which also view ISIS as their enemy, something he has resisted doing for years. In Iraq, Obama has pushed for a new government, one with less sectarian favoritism, and has said the U.S. will help rebuild "National Guard Units," reminiscent of the Sunni Awakening Councils that helped stabilize Iran before the U.S. withdrew, but which were later disbanded as Shiites monopolized power.
The approach also helps keep the U.S. from taking sides between Sunnis and Shiites, even as it fights Sunni extremists. And by involving many Arab countries and the international community, it preempts predictable attempts to paint this as a U.S. war against Muslims.
Preventing the war against ISIS from helping Iran, al-Assad and sectarian Iraqis is a politically ambitious effort, and one with no guarantee of success.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.
Frederic Wehrey: Will U.S. end up playing "whack-a-mole"?
The president's four-pronged strategy of airstrikes, support to local proxies, defending against ISIS attacks through intelligence and counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance leaves many unanswered questions. It's hardly a clear articulation of the sort of long-term, holistic strategy needed to deny ISIS the fertile ground it needs to thrive. The approach is fraught with tradeoffs, risks and hidden costs that need to be addressed.
The focus on targeting ISIS leadership -- drawing from what President Obama hailed as successful campaigns in Yemen and Somalia -- doesn't create the conditions on the ground for a lasting solution to the movement. High-value leadership targeting through precision strikes carry the risk of collateral casualties and of radicalization. And the record shows that militant leadership cadres can reconstitute themselves quickly, making such a strategy akin to a game of "whack-a-mole."
Frederic Wehrey
The emphasis on coalitions, while laudable in concept, also carries hidden risks: each of Iraq's Arab neighbors will be pursuing competing agendas that may run counter to America's stated objectives. And the solicitation of Gulf support will come with costs: the U.S. must be leery of turning a blind eye to the repressive policies of these regimes toward legitimate Islamist opposition groups under the newfound framework of "counter-terrorism."
Each of America's local allies against ISIS also have their own agendas -- the so-called "moderate" Syrian opposition, the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite militias, and there's evidence that each is already using airstrikes as convenient cover to advance their own political objectives.
Ultimately, Baghdad holds the key to the long term: how power is distributed in the capital's institutions. Obama cited U.S. support for the devolution of security responsibilities to Sunni tribes as part of the national guard structure. But this must be pursued carefully, to avoid setting the conditions for warlordism and militia rule.
Finally, the U.S. shouldn't focus too much on counter-ideology -- this is an argument without end, and religious factors are probably tangential to the more societal, economic and political grievances that drive the rank-and-file, whether they are alienated young Muslims from the West, Anbari tribes or ex-Baathist officers.
Obama rightfully dismissed ISIS's religious pretensions. The caliphate discourse is the mobilizing vocabulary for something that is ultimately more mundane and worldly: the absence of credible and inclusive institutions that can temper the appeal of toxic sectarian identities and radical religious voices.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
David Gergen: Did Obama open the door to a comeback?
The consensus view of the Barack Obama's speech is essentially right: he was strong, serious and presidential -- exactly what a commander in chief should be when committing troops to action. He went from saying several days ago that he had no strategy to laying out a coherent four-point plan. Bottom line: two thirds of Americans already wanted military action against ISIS and his address probably solidified their support.
David Gergen
But did the President also improve his own standing with the American people? That's an important question because he needs stronger approval in order to keep the public with him during the inevitable ups and downs that will come in the Middle East.
Polls this past week showed that only about 30% approve of his handling of foreign policy; only about 40% approve of his overall handling of the presidency; and in a shocker, over 50% say he has been a failure as president.
Because his numbers have been low for so long, I doubt the speech really lifted him up much personally. But the speech may have opened the door to a comeback. Whether he now breaks out of his slump probably depends on just how well his new, aggressive policy actually works in the next few months. And that, my friends, is probably the biggest question of all coming out of the speech.
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Christian Whiton: It's a phony strategy
Obama's words last night will go down in history. They will be the coda that illustrates the worst commander-in-chief in modern history.
Sadly, both Democrats and some Republicans heralded the president's words as a turning point, after which he is supposedly serious about the threat posed to the civilized world by the Islamic State. But we've seen this before, and have only ourselves to blame if we think it will work better this time.
Christian Whiton
In Libya, President Obama was impelled to act not by an opportunity to vanquish a longtime American foe, aid beleaguered Arabs facing slaughter, or deny an important geography to jihadists. The casus belli was actually the deep humiliation felt by an Obama administration caught flatfooted by the Arab Spring, including from its own conflicting statements and dithering as a longtime U.S. ally was deposed in Egypt.
Fearing another black eye from chaos and slaughter in neighboring Libya, Obama finally used the might of American air power against a resurgent Gadhafi. But he ignored matters on the ground, refusing to cultivate or arm more palatable rebel groups. This predictably led to the chaos that Islamists are exploiting in that country today. The air campaign did, however, get the administration off the hook in the short term -- allowing Obama to return to his domestic passions.
Obama is now applying this model to ISIS. Air power will impede and possibly reverse its march, but the United States won't raise a Sunni army like that which aided the 2007 surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. Instead, the administration remains faithful to the fairytale of a benevolent Shiite government in Baghdad that can restore Iraq.
In Syria, U.S. forces will now strike ISIS at times, but, under the administration's absurd rules of engagement, the Syrian military itself is presumably off limits. Will the U.S. thus be helping the dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War? Will we be helping Iran in Iraq, as Tehran increasingly intervenes to support Shiite Iraq? Why do we expect Sunnis to rise against ISIS in Sunni Iraq without their own arms and other means of survival?
Furthermore, this president remains ever unable to link ISIS with the broader collection of jihadists and Islamists who seek the destruction of a civilized order in the world through violence or subversion. This is a phony strategy that isn't worth putting a single American or allied life at risk for.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation and the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War." He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration.
LZ Granderson: No clear cut answers
In May 2013, Sen. John McCain entered Syria by way of Turkey, supposedly to meet with forces fighting the Bashir al-Assad regime. He took a photograph with some of these men and tweeted it out saying: "Important visit with brave fighters in #Syria who are risking their lives for freedom and need our help".
Shortly thereafter it was reported that some of the men in McCain's photo-op were not necessarily the "good guys." In fact, they reportedly were involved in the kidnapping of a Lebanese journalist, among other innocent people. A McCain spokesperson said the senator did not travel to Syria to meet with alleged kidnappers and that if it is true, the photo is regrettable and that "no one called himself by either name" of the kidnappers.
LZ Granderson
That's the problem with wolves in sheep clothing -- they don't come out and tell you they're not sheep. And it's because of this that the nation should be leery of arming rebels until we know exactly who they are rebelling against, and why. Recent reports suggest U.S. weapons have ended up in the hands of ISIS, most abandoned by Iraqi soldiers, and that some of the weapons the supposedly "good" Syrian rebels were supplied with were likely either sold or traded to ISIS by "corrupt members of the rebel ranks."
During CNN's post speech analysis, Sen. McCain was so eager to tear into former White House Spokesperson/new CNN political analyst Jay Carney about Obama's reluctance to arm Syria rebels earlier, that he forgot to mention those other shades in his otherwise black and white story.
The truth is, though, this current mission to fight terrorism is no more clear cut than the foray we embarked on 13 years ago, and we have learned nothing if we approach the debate that way. President Obama was smart not to propose any hard deadlines or cap of resources because we just don't know what it will take to defeat ISIS, or how much we'd have to invest as a nation to do so.
Most polls say voters view ISIS as a major threat and that they support air strikes in Iraq and Syria. This should be soothing news to congressional aides who are reluctant to have their bosses upset the apple cart so close to midterm elections. But air strikes do not come without risk, and it was wise for President Obama to take time to remind us of that.
An end-game but no clear cut path. A plan but no guarantees the parties involved will all play their designated part. That's how you end up doing a photo op with "good guys" who you later find out may not be very good at all -- right Sen. McCain?
LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.
Amal Mudallali: U.S. must follow up
President Obama's announcement of his strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS might have assured Americans, but it didn't answer many questions on the mind of the peoples of the region, especially those in Iraq and Syria.
People are relieved that the president moved to confront the threat of ISIS, but there is concern that this new American strategy might be strong on counter terrorism and short on the political component necessary to win the war on terrorism.
The Sunni grievances, which led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, are being addressed now in Iraq by a new government, thanks to American pressure. But on Syria the strategy is vague. The president spoke of a "political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all." This will sure please the Syrians, but the president didn't elaborate on what kind of a solution he sees for Syria or offer a road man. Granted, he announced ramping up the military assistance to the Syrian opposition. But he put the onus on the Congress.
There is fear that absence of a strategy after the airstrikes will mean the Syrian regime and its allies might fill the vacuum. There is also concern about a long war, and about creating a perception that this is a war against the Sunnis. A lot of things have to be done right by Washington and its allies to make sure this is a successful campaign.
This strategy is a test for the president and his administration -- if there is no follow up, and if the U.S. does not get it right this time, the price will be far too high for everybody.
Amal Mudallali is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center.