Hillary Clinton’s speech last week on the Islamic State at the Council on Foreign Relations has received more praise than parsing, benefiting from the contrast to the shameless fear-mongering of Republican presidential candidates. But sounding better than the cacophony coming out of the GOP ship of fools is a low bar. On the question of whether her strategy makes sense, the speech falls dramatically short.
Clinton pitched the speech as a more hawkish strategy than President Obama’s, calling for a “new phase” that would “intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate.” More planes, more strikes, more targets, more support for the Kurds. More exhortation to our allies to join the cause. Praying for a new Sunni awakening.
In reality, much of her strategy continues the president’s. Like the Obama policy, it will fail because it ignores the limitations of the narrow American-led coalition Washington has assembled. As it fails, the pressures to add more U.S. troops will grow. Clinton announced her opposition to returning “100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East,” but suggested she is open to adding to current forces if needed.
The one clear departure from Obama was her call for no-fly zones in Syria. No-fly zones have been scorned by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin. Dempsey as a costly nightmare and an “act of war.” They have nothing to do with defeating the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in Syria, which have no air force. They are aimed at weakening Syrian forces (which ironically might even strengthen the Islamic State). With Russia now supplementing the Syrian air force, the idea of a no-fly zone is even riskier. Clinton understands that it would be folly for the United States to threaten an air war with Russia over Syria, so she suggests that Moscow would somehow embrace a concept designed to weaken its ally.
An expanded coalition air campaign can continue to degrade Islamic State forces, but, Clinton admits, can’t defeat them. That will require troops on the ground — both to take back and hold territory and to help re-establish workable government institutions. Defeating the Islamic State means little if chaos is the result.
Like Obama, Clinton sensibly rules out a major expansion of U.S. or NATO forces. So where will the troops come from? Turkey is more concerned about the Kurds. Saudi Arabia is focused on waging war in Yemen, and more worried about Iran than the Islamic State. And both countries seem more inclined to continue channeling money and weapons to groups associated with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State to weaken the Syrian government while pretending to be part of the U.S. coalition. The Kurds are effective in defending their own territories but are more interested in carving out an autonomous region than they are liberating Raqqa or eastern Aleppo. Thus Clinton’s strategy is highly unlikely to succeed.
The most effective coalition against the Islamic State — indeed, the only coalition that can defeat it and establish an effective government — is a one that includes not only the United States, its allies, and Iraq but also Russia and Iran. As Clinton suggested in her remarks, the focus of the Obama administration in Syria until recently has been on getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Toward that end it has worked with Washington’s Sunni allies to deliver covert and overt aid to various rebel groups, much of which has ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, fueling the military conflict and producing ever more refugees. The obvious alternative would be to shelve that effort for now, and build a unified coalition to defeat the Islamic State, accompanied by an intensive diplomatic and political effort aimed at establishing local cease-fires between the Syrian government and local opposition groups to re-establish security in those areas. This might lead to a political settlement that would eventually result in new elections and a Syrian government (without Assad).
Clinton repeatedly invokes “smart power,” and the need to engage all elements of U.S. strength in the struggle against the Islamic State and terrorism. But her focus is on military tactics, not political strategy, and her speech omitted any discussion about how the United States got caught in the midst of this brutal sectarian civil war, and how U.S. policy – in Iraq and Libya more recently — has contributed to the region’s chaos. As we have seen time and again, legitimate, effective state institutions are the only long-term antidote to terrorism. Order will not be restored in Syria by invading powers leaving chaos in their wake, particularly from the West. It can only result from a political settlement among groups interested in preserving Syria as a multi-confessional society. With Islamic State terror striking Paris, Beirut and the Russian civilian airplane in a matter of days, that coalition makes even more sense — but not to Clinton.
Speaking on the same day at Georgetown University, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) provided a more balanced view. He warned against pursuing “reckless adventures abroad,” promising instead to rebuild America’s strength at home, and he made it clear that defeating the Islamic State requires a grand coalition, including Russia and Iran. Sanders praised the efforts to create agreement on a process to end the Syrian civil war and make the transition away from Assad’s brutal dictatorship, but insisted that “our priority must be to defeat ISIS.”
The reluctance of Sanders and President Obama to get further enmeshed in these internecine conflicts is exactly right. While we surely should be seeking to build alliances to end the Syrian civil war and quiet the spreading sectarian conflicts throughout the region, ever-increasing U.S. military involvement is a trap. Even as she calls for more, Clinton admits that only the countries and peoples in the region can settle this conflict. It is an admonition she would be wise to consider more deeply.