Based on President Obama's defiant ("I know better than everyone") defensive crouch at his post-Paris attacks G-20 Turkey press conference don't expect a sea change in White House policy against ISIS. Just think of more sloppy spit across the ISIS swamp. Better yet, designate it "Leading From As Far Behind as Possible, Version 2.0."
It was Obama at his most unappealing - setting up the red herrings and imaginary (if not imaginative) policy alibis that is his want in a vain attempt to silence his growing chorus of ISIS critics. The president's stubborn insistence that anyone daring to challenge his failing, slap-dash anti-ISIS strategy that has squandered so much and produced so little is merely playing politics: "W" wannabees bent on repeating the historical error of the Iraq invasion.
If only, as Obama whined in Anatalya, his ISIS critics would cease engaging in petty "political games or offering shallow solutions..." by challenging him on ISIS, life would be well and good for all. It's akin to him asserting that between birth and death there is nothing in between, case closed!
Smearing anyone who smells the malodorous odor of a failing Syria/Iraq/ISIS policy a mile away is a self-serving falsehood Obama frequently resorts to when cornered. By persisting in this un-presidential conduct Mr. Obama camouflages his own failures no longer able to be hidden - sinking to the low level of Politician-in-Chief rather than rising to a respected Commander-in-Chief as ISIS pounds at our doorstep.
In Obama's imaginary ISIS policy court of law President Defendant wins in a directed verdict because the plaintiffs have no case - incontestable evidence notwithstanding. Worse, Obama's White House NSC staff: the foreign policy equivalent of legal interns - endlessly engage in "spin room" testimonials for their boss on the air as if this were a Obama campaign primary debate rather than a presidential moment in the Situation Room.
For Obama, the rise of ISIS and its clear and present danger to our homeland (let alone to our closest allies in Europe) is an inconvenient truth getting in the way of an increasingly unconvincing legacy that he kept us out of another Middle East war. Actually, he is tumbling right back into one.
Just last Friday, hours before the Paris attacks, Obama boasted that the ISIS "jayvee squad" (his first utterances on ISIS) is "...on the run" and "has been contained." That coincided with his decision to deploy 50 U.S. commandos to Syria (who Obama assured, would not be on the front lines. Really? God forbid ISIS succeeds in a comparable attack in the US. I guaranty you Obama would be laughed off the podium if he tried to sell that Turkish taffy to a wounded, grieving American public.
Memo to Mr. Obama: This "Cool Hand Luke" stuff has worn awfully thin. Flaunting failed policies under false pretenses and false promises cries out for a mid-course correction before it is too late. The question for the American people is whether Obama is up to the job to keep us out of a ground war in Syria, but leveraging American leadership to compel other nations to step up to the plate to help defeat ISIS.
Despite my palatable disappointment with Mr. Obama's shortcomings I have stated repeatedly in these pages that I agree with the President in one major respect: namely that the U.S. should not, whether by omission or commission, be dragged into a Syrian proxy ground war in which, as the Washington Post's eminent columnist Eugene Robinson warns, the "lines between the good guys and the bad guys are faint and shifting." But Mr. Obama -- because he hasn't had a strategy -- is engaged in the very unchartered mission creep in Syria he has repeatedly vowed would never happen on his watch. But the skies over Syria are dominated by the U.S. air force, over $500 million has been squandered training imaginary rebels, with more and more "boots on the ground" that the president asserts are merely wearing socks.
Caveat Emptor: The Democratic Party is going to be holding Obama's empty ISIS bag at its peril come Election Day, and Mrs. Clinton, should she be the party's nominee, is going to be dragged down by the flotsam of a failed Obama foreign policy unless she is prepared to fundamentally offer far more than Obama's thin gruel - convincingly so! The Republicans are headed toward handing Democrats a likely 2016 win, but the American people are in no mood to give the Oval Office to Democrats if they cannot keep the homeland safe and secure.
Between fact and fiction lies a much more effective, coherent American anti-ISIS strategy, but to get there it is important to unmask the sad state of what Obama's team has bequeathed us to date - and the facts are not pretty.
To put it in its most charitable light the US has attempted to execute against ISIS four military strategies since it metastasized into a terror caliphate state straddling Syria and Iraq:
• Form an effective, multinational coalition to shoulder the burden against ISIS.
• Decay and degrade ISIS in Syria and Iraq via a sustained U.S.-led air campaign.
• Train & Equip "good" rebel and Kurdish Pesh Merga forces to avoid placing U.S. boots the ground.
• Expand covert CIA efforts to ID and eliminate ISIS leaders and interrupt their communications.
Let's assume for a moment that Obama's approach has had a beginning, middle, and end to it. Here is what it has (not) produced:
1. The Incredibly Shrinking US-Led Coalition: At the 2014 UN General Assembly, Obama proclaimed with great fanfare that over 40 nations have joined the US-led anti ISIS coalition. But according to the November 8 edition of the New York Times: "Allies Vanish as U.S. Escalates Air War Against ISIS." Saudi and UAE planes have been diverted to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Canada, yes CANADA declared two days ago it is removing its symbolically important 6 air force jets from the struggle. Aside from France and to a lesser extent, the UK, and Australia almost all US allies are providing lip service to the effort - some training here, some ammunition there, but nothing to write home about. Two weeks ago, Gen. John Allen, Obama's coalition "manager" resigned. Reliable sources in Washington told me that Allen had had enough of petty White House national security staff meddling to pressure him to spin that the coalition is not, in reality, a figment of Mr. Obama's and his Secretary of State's imagination. A Photo-Op Coalition...more like a Potemkin Village façade.
2. The State of the Air Campaign Against ISIS: As of November 12, the US has conducted 6,353 sorties in Iraq and Syria. The other members of the coalition (notably France) have conducted 1,772 sorties against ISIS (less than 15% of the total inside Syria). The Sunni states which the White House would like you to believe are essential members of the coalition (Turkey, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) have flown a grand total of 28 sorties in over two years. You do the math: what percentage is 28 out of 6,353! I earn far more in interest in my bank checking account.
Today, other than Jordan, no other Sunni Arab state pilot is flying in direct attack against ISIS. Moreover, other than warplanes from France there are no NATO allies flying "coalition" sorties over Syria (UK planes are forbidden to cross into Syrian airspace by PM Cameron), according to the Pentagon. Other NATO allies, notably Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and Poland...are AWOL. Sadly, the air campaign against ISIS has been largely ineffective because Obama has refused to permit U.S. Special Forces to establish forward sortie target identification zones to direct anti-ISIS airstrikes, rendering 75% of the 6K+ sorties useless. He is waging this war from the confines of the Oval Office rather than enabling his generals to effectively prosecute it from the Pentagon to minimize the potential of U.S. casualties.
To his credit, Obama finally - after over a year of stubborn refusal - authorized the Pentagon to begin a new air campaign this week -Operation Tidal Wave II -- to attack hundreds of oil transport trucks used by ISIS to export illicit oil from which it derives millions of dollars to fund its operations. The only criticism from me: why did it take the President over two years to authorize the obvious?
3. "Train & Equip" the Pesh Merga Kurds and "Good Syrian Rebel Forces": Several days ago, the Kurdish Pesh Merga liberated the strategic town of Sinjar. The successful battle for Sinjar was a rare, yet critical triumph of American & Kurdish military coordination. Score one for our side - a big plus for the Obama team. But the very Americans boots that Obama promised were not on the ground were indeed on the ground to help direct the fight. However, after Sinjar's liberation the NY Times quoted Kurdish commanders lamenting that the U.S. has so far failed to provide the Kurds sufficient arms and military intelligence support to sustain Kurdish ground efforts against ISIS. Here, too, the White House is using an eyedropper to dispense aid to the Kurds...penny wise and pound foolish. Kurdish complaints of stingy American aid permeate the media.
Not surprisingly, over 25% of all arms shipments meant for Kurds and the so-called "good" rebels have wound up in the hands of radical terrorist groups inside Syria. And when CENTCOM General Austin was compelled under relentless Congressional questioning to explain what training has been achieved, he was forced to admit - to the utter chagrin of a White House unprepared for the unauthorized revelation - that over $500 million has been wasted in a failed effort to train Syrian rebels who would fight ISIS, rather than the Assad regime. That admission forced the Administration to come up with the hasty alternative to deploy 50 Special Forces to Syria promising they were not there to engage in any combat.
With respect to Obama's vow never to place Americans into a direct combat role in either Iraq or Syria, Obama vowed publicly 16 times - I counted, that he would never abide by dispatching "boots on the ground" to Syria to combat ISIS. Well, in addition to his announcement of this intention to dispatch 50 Special Forces to "support but not fight" ISIS, the U.S. has 4,500 "boots on the ground" in Iraq, and secretly, hundreds of those boots are crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border regularly to assist Kurds and to help plot counter-terrorist strikes against ISIS targets in Syria. We lost a courageous American who was on the team to liberate Kurdish hostages.
4. Expand Covert CIA Efforts to Take Down ISIS: Chalk up some major victories here. Mr. Obama has never been shy about using drones and the CIA to attack terrorists - a commendable, successful act of persistent presidential leadership. The U.S. has been steadily picking off senior ISIS commanders in Syria, Iraq and Libya. We likely seriously injured ISIS' Calif - Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi earlier in the year. In a joint mission last week, the US and the UK put "Jihadi John" out of our misery. Because of Mr. Obama's determination to support the covert CIA program nine of 18 members of ISIS' ruling council have been dispatched - forcing ISIS to reach down into its junior ranks for replacements.
This, President Obama, is not a Report Card to brag about. ISIS is not contained. Indeed, Obama's own CIA Director John Brennan warned Monday that ISIS poses a direct, imminent threat to the U.S.
What better to do?
A Field Guide to A Better Anti-ISIS Campaign
Urgent U.S. Government Retooling. Mr. Obama is high on rhetoric and low on governance. His White House staff should take the time away from their spin zones to read "Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War" just issued by the Office of Joint Chiefs. There is a lack of cohesion and leadership within the USG to fight ISIS, largely because Obama's National Security Advisor - Susan Rice is completely out of her depth. The struggle against ISIS and Assad requires the equivalent of a Marshall Plan, and is in desperate need of internal direction and strategic innovation and leadership. There are inadequate manpower and resources to do the job. While the U.S. military can bomb ISIS back to its Middle Age comfort zone, then what?
If this coalition is unprepared to join the fight then it has to be prepared to do the political, economic and diplomatic heavy lifting to help transform a successful coalition military campaign into ISIS' death knell:
- This requires a restructured and abundantly resourced State Department able to assist foreign allies to train and equip local allied police, counter ISIS' social media campaigns, and transform efforts to end the Syrian Civil War as if Mr. Kerry's life depends on it (fortunately, Mr. Kerry is getting that message). Getting urgent resources into the State Department and other agencies part of the "internal coalition" requires an urgent bi-partisan cooperation that Paris perhaps has created. It's a shame that the fate of Syrian refugees may squander this window of opportunity. Yet, Speaker Ryan is a rare Republican -- he has evidenced a willingness to put aside politics for the sake of what's best for the nation and work with the President. A moment of potential bipartisanship on behalf of better securing the homeland.
- Developing a multinational plan to choke off the flow of foreign fighters, ISIS continues to attract Arab boots...especially from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia - the source of most Arab ISIS recruits. If there is inadequate cooperation to stem the flow then multinational sanctions must be imposed on ISIS recruit pools until their governments decisively act. Has that enterprise even put that on the table? No!
And why are we such fools at home? If any single American between the ages of 16 - 30 attempts to leave the US for a Middle East destination claiming to visit grandmamma and does not have a return ticket and is not back in two weeks...I'd interrogate him under a poly within the blink of an eye until they are blue in the face.
Iraq's Government: Obama deferred to Maliki, and Maliki helped begot ISIS. Now what? There is no victory against ISIS until a coalition unites to force the Iraqi government to integrate aggrieved Sunnis back into its governing structure. If Iraq is disintegrates a rump Sunni state becomes the eternal incubator for the Caliphate. Easier said than done, but, here too, Obama has had two toes in and 8 toes out of Iraq.
Arab Boots on the Ground: Other than little, courageous Jordan, the other Sunni Arab states are spectators to the ISIS play rather than players defending their neighborhood. They are paralyzed, pretending that the spreading ISIS cancer is not a direct threat to them. It's no longer sufficient for them to serve as the Amen Choir as we do their dirty work. Let the Americans and Europeans fight this crusade, one Moroccan told me. UNACCEPTABLE! Jawboning Morocco, Algeria, and the Gulf States to deploy two combined ground divisions into the desert straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border to carve the Caliphate in two robs ISIS of its supply lines of communications is a NO BRAINER. Getting them to do it requires persistent, (perhaps sanctioning and shaming Arab leaders) by the U.S., France and Russia. It can be done. Failure is not an option. ISIS has killed far more innocent Arabs than westerners: a fifteen-fold increase in ISIS inspired terrorism throughout MENA in 2015 alone...the Beirut suicide bombing being the latest shocking example. The numbers are staggering. Remember, Arab participation adds an essential element of coalition legitimacy against ISIS.
Establish a Coalition-Built Safe Haven And Get Syrians Into the Vienna Talks: Assad and the rebels seem as unprepared as ever to compromise as we are diverted to the battle against ISIS. This is where a SAFE HAVEN is essential in northern Syria. President Obama has taken this off the table, rushing to false judgment that this would expand the US footprint in Syria. Think of it...Germany is awash in Syrian refugees, but it is doing NOTHING to assist the coalition to carve out a safe haven in northern Syria to stem the flow the refugees and help create space inside Syria to create a "zone of deconfliction" to enable Syrians to catch their breath and establish an internal zone to promote some resolution of the conflict. Berlin and NATO have a job to do here, Chancellor Merkel.
Kicking ISIS Offline & Destroying ISIS Social Media Encrypted Communications. Defenders of Edward Snowden take note: ISIS' rise is a direct consequence of his traitorous revelations. ISIS has been able to release hit lists of British and American military and civilian leaders. It is using cutting edge APP technology to encrypt its inter Caliphate-European-U.S. communications and chats. The "Islamic State Hacking Division" is headed by savvy Saudi-trained social media experts. I know. I am working to take them down. The Cyber Caliphate is the life-blood of terrorist planning. CIA Director Brennan pleaded publicly for urgent help from Silicon Valley and from Congress to help kick the Caliphate offline.
Twitter's corporate leadership has so far failed miserably to stifle ISIS' use of its platform. ISIS still has a central Twitter app called The Dawn of Tidings...downloaded through Google Play. The U.S. does not have sufficient data mining capability to even monitor Jihadi unencrypted communications. Facebook has lead here, but where is Google, YouTube, The Internet Archives, Instagram, Tumblr, Skype, Ask.fm, Kik, Surespot, Sound Cloud, Vidme, Justpaste.it, Whatsapp, and the others that are the vital social media links utilized by ISIS combatants and its sympathizers. The Obama Administration has no one of senior level as the Anti-ISIS Cyber Media Czar to work with these enterprises to assert a Facebook-type campaign against ISIS.
ISIS uses these on-line social media tools, particularly TOR (a software that encrypts a user's IP address) and routes internet traffic through a series of off line servers (so called "onion routing") as part of its DARK WEB to mask IP addresses to circumvent surveillance.
CIA Director Brennan stated at CSIS two days ago:
"I do think this is a time for particularly Europe, as well as here in the United States, for us to take a look and see whether or not there have been some inadvertent or intentional gaps that have been created in the ability of intelligence and security services to protect the people that they are asked to serve. And in the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging."
In other words, we are tying our hands behind our backs by preventing our counter-terrorism officials to deprive ISIS of impenetrable encrypted communications. Surely, there is a better middle ground that protects American privacy, but destroys ISIS' use of encrypted technology.
The losing "battle of ideas" against ISIS waged by a sliver of American diplomats from the 19th century confines of the U.S. State Department has been well-documented in the Washington Post. Jealous NSC staffers have robbed the State Department of resources and authority to launch on line communications campaigns -- serving as political censors to ensure that nothing deployed by State on line against ISIS would impair the president's image in the Arab world.
Notice to this NSC: The President's standing in the Arab world, from every respected poll, is worse than that of George H.W. Bush. So much for avoiding politics when it comes to national security. Fighting ISIS on line requires more Arab minds working 24/7 on line to thwart, persuade, shame, and de-legitimate ISIS. Unfortunately, other than several covert anti ISIS social media initiatives in Jordan and the UAE, there are no social media "war rooms" in the Arab countries combatting ISIS in their own backyards.
We Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, are all in harm's way -- more than ever in the cross-hairs of ISIS. Please, Mr. President, get off your high horse and roll up your sleeves. Paris was a 3am wake-up call.
Follow Amb. Marc Ginsberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ambmcg