Does Clinton's strategy for beating ISIS add up?

Hillary Clinton calls for increased airstrikes on ISIS
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Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton delivers a speech on national security at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday
  • Michael Desch: Speech glosses over some fundamental tensions of her strategy for defeating ISIS

Michael Desch is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of the university's International Security Center. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a polished and effective speech on her strategy for dealing with ISIS on Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations. As with her recent testimony before the House Benghazi Committee, she came across as reasonable and in command of the many facets of the wickedly complex problem of global terrorism.

Indeed, she stands head-and-shoulders above the Republican candidates in terms of having a concrete strategy for dealing with ISIS that does not involve putting large numbers of American boots on the ground, shutting out hordes of innocent Syrian refugees fleeing our common foe, or further shredding the Constitution in the name of preventing what happened in Paris last week from happening in Times Square.
Michael Desch
That said, her speech still felt as much like a campaign plan to retake the White House in 2016 as a battle plan to "crush ISIS' enclave of terror." That may explain why it glossed over some fundamental tensions lurking just below the surface of her strategy for defeating ISIS.
    For example, she advocated continuing U.S. leadership in this fight, but also wanted us to limit our role to airpower and special operations forces, and avoid a major ground commitment. This even as she admitted that a ground campaign is essential to the goal of destroying ISIS.
    To square that circle, Clinton demanded local actors play the major role on the ground. But she did not explain how, if the United States continues to lead the fight, as we have been, other regional actors have any incentive to do much more themselves?
    She also sidestepped the inconvenient fact that the most effective forces in the fight against ISIS also cause serious headaches for us with our other allies. The recent turn in the tide of battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been led by an upsurge in Kurdish forces. But in both cases, the Kurds are a double-edged sword that not only smites ISIS, but also threatens other key U.S. allies, particularly Turkey and the central government in Baghdad.
    Clinton is certainly right that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government needs to embrace the Sunnis to win the war against ISIS. But she did not explain how to make this happen in the face of the harsh realities of Iraqi history and contemporary politics. After all, we tried to wake up the Sunnis to fight the extremists once before, in 2006. And although it worked for a while, eventually they drifted back to sleep as our ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, pursued an increasingly sectarian line.
    Clinton wants to marginalize Russia and exclude Iran altogether from the fight against ISIS in Syria, something that makes political sense given that neither country is very popular with the American public. But is it realistic to cut out those two states given their major role in the fight, the overlap of interests we have with them in opposing ISIS there and in Iraq, and the fact that whether we like it or not their ally Bashar al-Assad is likely not going anywhere soon?
    It is true, as she said repeatedly in her remarks, that the Assad regime has killed more Syrians than ISIS at this point. But that is cold comfort given that Assad had a head start, and in any case he is not proposing killing any Americans. Clinton regretted that President Obama had not taken her and Gen. David Petraeus' advice to begin arming the Syrian "moderate opposition" sooner. But she did not explain how doing so then would have turned out better, given that our recent investment in the "moderate opposition" of $500 million netted just four or five actual fighters!
    Despite all this, Clinton continues to bask in the warm glow of the Arab Spring, during which it seemed the United States could throw friendly dictators under the bus in favor of the newly energized democratic masses. But the rest of the world is now shivering in the Arab winter in which the prospects for democracy seem less robust and friendly dictators like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi no longer look so bad. One would think that after our failures at nation-building in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya she would be more circumspect about proposing to try it in Syria.
    Clinton ended her remarks with a heartwarming vignette about a French Muslim working at a kosher grocery store who protected French Jews during a previous terrorist attack last winter. No doubt, Lassana Bathily's heroic actions make for great copy and an inspiring campaign speech. But if this is the sort of extraordinary behavior we need to defeat ISIS, our task is much tougher than Clinton's upbeat remarks in New York suggested.