Wednesday night, President Obama gave a speech outlining his plan to combat the growing force of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Brookings scholars had an email conversation sharing their reactions to the speech. An edited version of that conversation is below.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program:
A few thoughts to kick off what I expect will be a good discussion on the speech:
Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow and Director of Research, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program:
I was happier, I guess. I wasn’t expecting any great detail from this speech. Rather, I was pleased that he was engaging the American people directly — something he avoided on Libya, in particular, which I found very frustrating. I see #1 as for a much longer speech or a policy document. As far as the real threat, I was glad he put the threat of ISIS-linked terrorism in proper perspective. I’d add the risk of spillover. We’ve already seen it in Iraq, and I’m worried about Lebanon in particular (though not of huge strategic importance) and stability issues in other neighbors. I have some further thoughts on Iraq in reaction to the speech I wrote for the Brookings blog.
Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research, Foreign Policy Program and Senior Fellow , Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Foreign Policy Program:
I was about a five in happiness level, on a scale of one to 10. One more point: his fleeting mention of a Sunni National Guard concept was welcome–but gosh, I think it deserves more than six or eight words. It’s a crucial element of the strategy–create Sunni units to fight for their homeland, sort of an institutionalized version of the Sons of Iraq. But whether you like it or not, the sheer fact that the strategy depends on yet-to-be-developed new military units in Iraq (and, as Kenneth Pollack and others of us have written, a yet-to-be developed new Syrian opposition force) underscores just how far there is to go–and how much more we may need to do, ourselves, to help if it is to succeed in the end (in my assessment of the situation).
Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program:
My view is that a true commitment to a Syrian opposition force will never materialize. I do admit that the engagement of the Saudis and others does increase the chance for a revitalized Free Syrian Army, and it offers us an opportunity, through articles like Kenneth Pollack’s fine Foreign Affairs piece, to push for it. But the president has long ago transmitted his deepest feelings on the subject, so I will believe it only when I see it.
William McCants, Director, U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program:
In the post I wrote ahead of the president’s speech, I was looking for the president to do three things:
On point one, I was pleasantly surprised the president didn’t hype the threat of ISIS to the homeland. But I was disappointed he didn’t say more about the regional order we’re actually fighting to protect. On points two and three, I didn’t hear much of anything.
Taken all together, the president didn’t do enough to ensure that the current high public support for attacking ISIS will last.
One small gripe: The president characterized ISIS as a terrorist group and his response as counter-terrorism. I imagine there are good political (and perhaps legal) reasons to use that language. But this is a war against an insurgent group.
Ken Pollack, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy Program:
Here’s a bit of my take. Like many of you, I had a mixed reaction to the speech.
Some things that I thought positive:
Some things I thought were negative:
Ultimately, it was just a speech; a speech that was nothing but an effort to undo his mistake from two weeks earlier. I think we now really need to focus on what they do!
Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Program:
In devising a strategy for combating ISIS, the United States has one advantage that arises from the biggest vulnerability of the “Islamic Caliphate.” Contrary to what President Obama said last night, they are a “state” in the sense that they have taken control of a large swath of territory and assumed responsibility for the millions of people who live there. As Hamas discovered in Gaza that puts them in a fundamental dilemma: do they feed the people or fight the enemy? That’s why Osama bin Laden so opposed establishing the caliphate. Hamas resolved the dilemma by entering into a truce with Israel, while preparing to fight it later. But when Egypt dried up its sources of revenue for feeding the people by shutting down its smuggling tunnels, Hamas tried to hand back that responsibility to the Palestinian Authority. Pretty soon now Gazans will likely turn against them, especially because neither Egypt nor the Palestinian Authority will relieve their plight until Hamas relinquishes control of the territory. As Abu Mazen told Khaled Mashal, “I refuse to be a fez on a scarecrow.”
In ISIS’s case, their control of territory gives the United States a clear target to go after (the terrain of their state advantages airpower). And their need to feed the people means that the more effectively we can dry up their sources of revenue, the more discontent they will face. This will take time, but it is certainly achievable and it relieves some of the problems of not having boots on the ground.
This is going to be a long war and that means that it’s going to be primarily waged on the next president’s watch. Obama’s principal contribution is that he turned his Middle East policy around, and enjoys the support of the Congress and the American people for doing so. Turning the ship of state around in the prevailing circumstances is what matters here. We were in the process of withdrawing from the Middle East and that has had a dramatic impact on our influence with all the players there. Now we’re coming back – gradually, hesitatingly no doubt. But the direction is clear. If President Obama had tried to turn public opinion around with full-throated and passionate words about the threat to our homeland and great statesmanlike rhetoric about America’s responsibility to create a new order in the Middle East, he would not have the American people with him. They’re tired of all that and, when it comes to the Middle East, don’t believe it any more. So from my point of view, the speech was just what was needed — good enough for government work. Now let’s take up our responsibility — to articulate and debate the strategy for winning this war and try to help the next president create a new order out of chaos.
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy and Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and Director, Intelligence Project, Foreign Policy Program:
The Islamic State poses a number of challenges, including potential threats to the homeland in the future, an immediate ideological threat and the insurgent threat. It also is a hostage challenge. The United States has not confronted a significant hostage/counter-terrorism problem since 1991. When it did, two presidents found it extremely difficult to handle. The public wants the hostages rescued, not grand strategy (Martin rightly reminds us that is for think tanks). Carter lost his bid for reelection at the first Gulf War; Reagan traded arms for hostages and narrowly escaped impeachment. The elder Bush found a winning strategy in 1991 because he had something to give Iran/Hezbollah and because Saddam Hussein had inadvertently freed the captives Imad Mughniyah wanted to trade hostages for.
The Islamic State’s next move is probably to execute a third hostage, probably a U.K. citizen; they have at least five U.S. and U.K. hostages and can easily acquire more. The American public will find a disconnect between a three-year or longer strategic response, no matter how smart, and images of horror on the nightly news. It could easily get worse. Al Qaeda in Pakistan has one American hostage (completely forgotten by the media) and could take more easily in Pakistan. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is basically a kidnap/extortion machine, but has avoided Americans until now– that could change.
Obama may face two or more years of hostage taking and executions, which seem to underscore the limits of American power. It will be easy for critics to charge him as weak and ineffective without of course providing a policy that stops hostage taking.