President Barack Obama presented his strategy for defeating ISIL in an address to the nation from the Oval Office yesterday evening. Other than recognizing the seriousness of the threat, which was heartening after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Obama offered nothing new. His speech was a retread of old ideas and ineffective policies.
Here's what President Obama should have said:
My fellow Americans, the US will ramp up its efforts to destroy ISIL through an intensified effort to deny ISIL fighters sanctuary in Iraq and Syria, more pro-active prevention to interdict attacks, expanded efforts to staunch radicalization, and a long-term plan to drain the swamp of support for extremism by addressing the root causes that give rise to despair and disenfranchisement.
As long as ISIL has sanctuary in Iraq and Syria, its so-called caliphate will be a magnet for recruiting foreign fighters. The American people have no appetite for another ground war in the Middle East. However, we can succeed in destroying ISIL by expanding support for capable and committed local fighters, and by compelling greater cooperation from members of the international coalition.
To this end, we will provide heavy and offensive weapons to the Iraqi Kurds. Their fighters, called "Peshmerga" (those who face death) - have shown battlefield prowess by stopping ISIL advances on Kirkuk and liberating Sinjar, where ISIL committed terrible atrocities against the Yazidi people. Kurds are pro-Western and share our values. They deserve more than light weapons and ammunition. With expanded air support, and assistance from more Special Forces, peshmerga will succeed in rolling back territorial gains of ISIL. We will give Peshmerga the tools to do the job. At the same time, we expect more from the Government of Iraq (GOI). We call on Baghdad to resist the influence of Iran and strengthen its ties to the West. Shiite militias, under control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, must be brought under the GOI's control. We cannot countenance their atrocities against Sunnis, which further erodes reconciliation among Iraqis. The US will modify its "Baghdad first" policy. Our security cooperation will proceed on multiple tracks, including expanded support to peshmerga and, with accountability, assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). We demand professionalism of the ISF. The US will not provide sophisticated weapons to the ISF, who are unwilling to fight and surrender equipment to ISIL.
We will also expand our support to Syrian Kurds - the "People's Protection Units" (YPG). Last year, the YPG and other Kurdish fighters showed heroic resilience in staving off the ISIL offensive in Kobani. They also worked effectively with Arab militias to liberate the town of Tal-Abyad on the Turkish-Syrian border, thereby closing an important transport route from Turkey to Raqqa, the ISIL headquarters. Today, the YPG is within 25 kilometers of Raqqa. The US will assist them to tighten the noose around Raqqa and deal a crushing blow to ISIL.
We expect more effective cooperation from the Turkish Government. Ankara needs to walk the talk. Turkey's border with Syria remains porous, with fighters and weapons flowing to ISIL. The border must be fully and finally sealed. In addition, Turkey must stop buying oil from ISIL, which is an economic lifeline of the Islamic State. Turkey may oppose the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, called "Rojava." But we will not tolerate Turkey's attacks against our allies, the Syrian Kurds, who are taking the fight to ISIL. The US will expand work with our allies to prevent radicalization. To this end, we will:
- Revoke citizenship to any American who has gone to Syria to fight with ISIL. We call on our European allies to do the same. - Close radical mosques and prayer rooms, which are hubs for incitement. Imams who advocate violent jihad should be detained or deported. - Use smarter surveillance techniques to collect phone and email data-identifying extremists. Gathering metadata can be done while preserving civil liberties, which are the foundation of our open society. - Ban social media sites that are used by jihadis. Experts from Silicon Valley can join efforts to prevent radical messaging. - Deface web sites that are used by ISIL for recruitment and sending encrypted messages with operational instructions to fighters in the field. We will use denial of service attacks, as well as all other means to prevent jihadi communications. - Work with our allies to implement more effective financial and regulatory practices aimed at staunching ISIL revenues.
The vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims are devout and peace-loving. Our grievance is not with the Islamic faith, but with those who wrongfully interpret teachings in the Qur'an to radicalize Muslim youth.
To win the ideological war, we need to expand our partnership with local leaders of the broader Muslim community. Governments cannot prevent the radicalization of Muslims. However, Muslim community and religious leaders can be effective messengers. We will support grassroots partnerships that use a variety of communications tools to oppose radicalization. We will mobilize local actors who are credible voices in their communities. We will work with them to hone the message and expand their capacity as messengers.
More than a communications strategy, we must address the root causes of extremism. We must prevent extremists from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups to commit acts of violence. Draining the swamp of support for extremists must address the factors that give raise to despair and disenfranchisement.
The US will provide more financial resources to its programs countering violent extremism. Our soft power and development assistance can be used to address the knowledge, freedom, and gender gaps, which exist in many Muslim societies.
We will work with host governments to improve their formal educational systems, by improving the quality of local educators, school facilities, and learning materials such as textbooks. Responding to illiteracy and ignorance is the driver of economic growth and higher productivity.
Knowledge can also expand the scope of human freedoms through good governance, and help achieve the higher human goals of justice and dignity. I understand the widespread frustration about the prospect for peaceful transition in the wake of the Arab Spring. Full respect for human rights and freedoms is the cornerstone of good governance. We will demand more accountable and democratic government from our friends in the Gulf States and the Organization of Islamic Conference.
Respect for human rights also includes women's rights. We expect all governments to take measurable steps to build the capacities of women and enable them to exercise those capabilities in full. This will require expanding educational and economic opportunities for women, and tackling gender discrimination in all its forms.
My fellow Americans, we face a grave and growing danger. We cannot ignore ISIL or wish it away. We must confront it with all the tools at our disposal. As commander in chief, my top responsibility is the safety of the American people. With the plan I have presented this evening, we will go on the offensive, bringing to bear the full arsenal of our hard and soft powers to counter violent extremism. America will rise to this challenge and reaffirm its role as a force for good in the world by enabling the full potentiation of our Muslim brothers and sisters in conditions of freedom and free from fear.
God bless all peoples in the world, and God bless the United States of America.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as Senior Adviser to the US Department of State during the administration of President Barack Obama. He was also a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts during the administrations of President Clinton and Bush. He is author of "Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-War Reconstruction Fiasco." His most recent book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."