The Debate Over What To Do About ISIS Isn't Much Of A Debate

The Debate Over What To Do About ISIS Isn't Much Of A Debate

WASHINGTON -- The predominant feature in the debate over what, exactly, the U.S. should do about the threat of the Islamic State is that there really isn't much of a debate.

Though it's hard to notice under the barrage of back-and-forth sniping, politicians have rallied around the same basic set of prescriptions. Under the formula, the United States would:

1. Seek to put together a coalition of like-minded nations willing to confront the Islamic State

2. Encourage political reconciliation in Iraq and government restructuring in Syria

3. Ramp up military involvement in both those regions

4. Bolster Sunni moderates in the Middle East

5. Resist sending American troops into combat while still bolstering U.S. personnel in the region

Legitimate disagreements remain over how to achieve these broadly shared objectives, and there are obvious disputes over how to define specific missions. (What is "troops on the ground"?) But the general schisms tend to be more about tone and timing than substance.

"The divisions are superficial," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focusing on national security policy for the Obama-allied Center for American Progress. "There is a consensus on those broad strokes."

Indeed, for those outside this mainstream consensus, the current discussion over the Islamic State, also called ISIS, can be peculiar and disheartening. One faction sees it as naive about the severity of the threat and the demands of the mission.

"The boots on the ground question's always the toughest one. I wish we were not so paranoid about boots on the ground," said former Gen. Anthony Zinni on the latest taping for "Meet The Press." "We can't even define it. There's going to have to be special operations forces. There’s going to have to be people that call in and adjust air and fires and advisers to be with these units."

The other side sees the debate as under-appreciative of long-term demands and ramifications -- a reprisal of the narrowly focused debate in the run up to the Iraq War.

"It seems unlikely that U.S. military action, even if assisted by surrogates on the ground, can 'kill' ISIS. At best, we will be able to significantly reduce its capabilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but then what?" said Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University who was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war. "If the basic problem is instability -- a problem extending far beyond Iraq/Syria, of course -- then the big question is what if anything the U.S. and its allies can do to restore stability to the region. That’s where the debate ought to focus. I don’t get much sense of people taking on that issue, perhaps because it is truly a daunting one."

But Zinni and Bacevich occupy lonely spots on the foreign policy spectrum, at least at this juncture. Within these poles stand the president and the vast majority of elected officials, including prominent non-interventionists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

While Obama has been criticized for his caution (and a gaffe-ish admission about the lack of settled strategy on Syria) he has also authorized more than 115 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, called for $500 million in arms transfers to moderate rebels in Syria, facilitated the removal of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and encouraged other Middle East countries to lend resources to the fight. U.S. combat troops have not returned to the theater, though on Tuesday evening the president sent another 350 personnel to guard the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, bringing the total to 820. Military operations have not commenced in Syria, though signals suggest that it's a matter of time and better intelligence, rather than will.

"Assuming the region doesn't get its act together in a serious way, I think the U.S. might find itself conducting targeted missions inside of Syria," said Katulis. "It will take some time to collect the necessary intel and put into place the proper legal authorities."

Beyond military strikes, major questions remain about where the White House will go, said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security, a foreign policy arm of the Brookings Institute. Will the president soften demands for Syrian President Bashar Assad to be removed from office? Will he coordinate with the Assad government to go after the Islamic State? And are he and Congress actually committed to arming the Syrian moderate rebels?

Those are divisive fronts to address. And it could very well be that Obama pursues a path dramatically at odds with the consensus. But to this point, O'Hanlon said, "there is something" to the idea that a consensus does exist, however obscured it is by an endless-loop debate over the merits of presidential deliberativeness. Here is a sampling from over the weekend.


Secretary of State John Kerry in a New York Times op-ed

With a united response led by the United States and the broadest possible coalition of nations, the cancer of ISIS will not be allowed to spread to other countries. The world can confront this scourge, and ultimately defeat it. ISIS is odious, but not omnipotent.

Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a New York Times op-ed

The president clearly wants to move deliberately and consult with allies and Congress as he considers what to do about ISIS. No one disputes that goal.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, on CNN's "State of the Union"

It's not just the United States. We can't be sheriff for the whole world. It's France. It's -- it's the Brits. It's -- it's the other countries that need to work with us, including countries like Saudi Arabia and that region, who also need to stop…

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) on CNN's "State of the Union"

Well, I was going to say, I agree with everything Dutch said.

Gen. Zinni on "Meet The Press"

We need to rebuild the coalition in the region. It is fractured ever since we first went into Iraq. ... We need to bring together a coalition of outsiders, Europeans and others, like we did in the first Gulf War.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on "Meet the Press"

[H]opefully, those plans will coalesce into a strategy that can encourage that coalition from Arab nations. Jordan's at jeopardy, Lebanon's at jeopardy ... other countries are in jeopardy.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on CBS' "Face The Nation"

I agree with Adam Smith that we have to have coalitions, and we have to try to get other forces on our side.


Airstrikes alone won’t defeat this enemy. A much fuller response is demanded from the world. We need to support Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition, who are facing ISIS on the front lines. We need to disrupt and degrade ISIS’ capabilities and counter its extremist message in the media. And we need to strengthen our own defenses and cooperation in protecting our people.

It is a truism to say there is no military solution to ISIS. Any strategy must, of course, be comprehensive. It must squeeze ISIS’ finances. ... It requires an end to the conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. A strategy to counter ISIS also requires a regional approach to mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.


It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis, rather than pushing them toward ISIS


I think this is extraordinarily serious, and I think the president is wise in this sense. What I understand he's trying to do is give an opportunity for this new Iraqi government, new because of a new prime minister, al-Abadi, to begin to make the moves which offer an alternative to the Sunni people in his country.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on "Face The Nation"

And let's take Iraq as an example. When the problems began in Iraq, there was considerable criticism that the president didn't act right then. But the problem was, we had the Maliki government in Iraq. And if we had acted right then, we would have been coming in on the side of Iran and the Shias in a Shia-Sunni civil war.


Continuing to confront ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria, would be fighting with one hand tied behind our back. We need a military plan to defeat ISIS, wherever it is.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson on ABC'S "This Week"

This is a momentous decision. And, again, I think the president was right to say, OK, well, we're going to do the airstrikes. We're doing them in Iraq. Do we do them in Syria? I would advise him probably yes. But let's do it in a targeted way.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Fl.) after the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, said he's filing legislation to give Obama authority to order airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

This will ensure there’s no question that the president has the legal authority he needs to use airstrikes in Syria. ... Let there be no doubt, we must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty.



The administration will likely to continue to rely on the creative fiction of "no boots on the ground" in its public messaging, but that won't completely reflect the complex realities in Iraq and other places. As we've seen in conflicts like Iraq, the distinction between "combat" and "non-combat" troops can become a false one in an instant given the nature of the threats that are present. This is especially true when the US introduces Special Forces into an area with the missions aimed at enabling and supporting partners fighting groups like ISIS.

McCain on CBS' "Face The Nation"

I think that it requires additional U.S. troops, not ground combat units, but it is going to require some more special forces. It is going to require some more forward air controllers. It is going to require some more advisers for training of the Iraqi military, which right now is, as we all know, near collapse.


I am endorsing boots on the ground, and so is Gen. [Jack] Keane and Gen. [John] Allen and a few others -- at least, special forces and mentors ... What everyone agrees on is that we shouldn’t have main combat units in Iraq again. But that’s a separate point.

Katulis' quote on the potential uptick in U.S. forces was updated for clarity

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