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The President’s Sand Trap


To use a golf analogy, Obama is stuck in a sand trap. His military and diplomatic advisers are not useful caddies, because they are handing him the wrong clubs, military ones, for a struggle, which he says has no military solution. On Syria, the first question is whether the peace movement should push hard for a Congressional authorization. I don’t think there’s any choice, although this time Congress may be more hawkish than Obama. If so, that’s that. We take names and visit their district offices.

The framework of the authorization, assuming coming amendments, will force a choice between [1] simply taking a principled stand of “no bombing”, and [2] seeking damage control that may prove useful later.

Part one of the authorization will be whether to use military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. For what it’s worth, the public agrees by 2-1 and many of our dovish Members will vote to authorize. The rational opposing arguments might be: [1] quoting Obama as repeatedly saying there is no military solution, and [2] bombing plays into the hands of ISIS by helping unify Sunnis.

Part two of the authorization debate will be whether to use US ground troops. There we can fight with a lot of Congressional support and presidential assurances. This one is important because it is a deterrent to the “slippery slope” that may come when and if the Iraqi army crumbles.

Part Three will be timeline and reporting requirements, the usual arguments. We should be for a timeline, again for its deterrent value.

An important issue not being included for now is whether the authorization should insist on political conditions on Iraq. The Obama plan is incoherent in the sense that he got al-Maliki to step down only by promising he would bomb and strafe ISIS positions [after saying he refused to be a “Shiite air force”]. But the bigger question is how to rid the Iraqi army of its sectarian commanders and composition, including the police and the prison system. Obama and Congress have allowed that sectarianism to fester until it caused the current Sunni revolt in Iraq in alliance with ISIS. The inner circle around al-Baghdadi was in US prisons together and originated in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist armed forces. It’s an unstable alliance, including two general perspectives: on the one hand, the Caliphate without borders, on the other hand, the demand for a virtual autonomous zone for Sunnis in Iraq, something like the Kurds have. The Caliphate is unacceptable to the US, all Shiite parties, and many Sunni interests. The Sunni autonomous zone is something the Obama administration might be willing accept in diluted form, since they understand that the Sunnis have been completely oppressed [with our tolerance]. But the Iraq Shiites will never accept it unless forced on them by war and negotiations. The internal contradiction within ISIS is caused by al-Baghdadi’s assertion that he is the sole Caliph for all Muslims, an assertion that will beget a revolt from within – if the external “Crusaders” ever stop bombing and invading.

I don’t see Congress being capable of understanding that a solution is impossible without these far-reaching concessions to Iraq’s Sunnis. Therefore the danger is that the military part of the authorization will proceed but the political component will consist of being just words. The best we and our Congressional friends might be able to do is warn loudly and repeatedly that a military solution is being authorized even though no one thinks there can be a military solution, including the president.

And that’s only the Iraq quagmire.

Coming back to Syria, Obama says he wants to attack ISIS while not helping Assad. Another incoherent contradiction. One supposes he can help Al Nusra and the CIA’s Free Syria Army in fighting ISIS, expanding a civil war within a civil war, but he can’t get them to unite against Assad. That means he will try building a ground force heavily laden with foreign fighters from places like Jordan, thus expanding the region’s sectarian civil war. If that fails, it’s quite possible that ISIS will threaten Assad’s armed forces and Alawite backers into retreat and flight from the country. The UN would have to be called back to try forging a cease-fire, partition and power sharing.

All this is so imponderable that we need to take one step at a time. That’s why the Congressional authorization should be sought, and the restrictions in terms of timelines and ground troops become important. It looks like peace groups will have some time to continue seeking consensus, credibility and a much larger base, resting on the public’s opposition to becoming bogged down in a sectarian civil war.

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