Rich Lowry: A war for show

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, October 12, 2014 3:23pm
  • Opinion

Compared with President Barack Obama, even Jimmy Carter is John McCain.

The former president practically synonymous with American weakness and retreat thinks Obama was too slow to act against ISIS and gives his current strategy only “a possibility of success,” provided it involves (unspecified) ground troops.

When you are too passive for Jimmy Carter, it’s time for some soul-searching in the Situation Room. The late-1970s are calling and want their foreign policy back.

The war against ISIS so far is desultory and occasional, a campaign of underwhelming force. ISIS has still been on the verge of taking the Syrian town of Khobani, abutting the Turkish border, and on the offensive in Iraq. The erstwhile JV team is defying all the military might that the world’s lone superpower is willing to muster.

There has been renewed talk of how, as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta put it the other day, the fight against terrorism will be a 30-year war. At this rate, it will be a generational struggle merely to get ISIS out of Mosul.

To this point, almost everything has lent credence to the skeptical interpretation of Obama’s war: That in reaction to a spectacular media event (the horrific ISIS beheadings), the president staged his own media event, an inconsequential bombing campaign accompanied by a tough-sounding, prime-time speech.

The experience of the surge in Afghanistan, the red-line fiasco and now this suggest that Obama is a hawk precisely to the extent he feels the politics don’t allow him to wiggle out of it.

His talk of Afghanistan as the good war in the 2008 campaign was too fresh for him to countenance an immediate defeat. So he ordered the surge and tried never to speak of it again, and now wants to completely liquidate our military presence on the failed model of Iraq.

He had seemed determined to strike Syria after Bashar Assad used chemical weapons last year, then found a way to crab-walk away from his own earnest warnings.

The war against ISIS happens to be just enough to placate the public’s hawkish mood without getting too far out in front or taking actions that will fully commit the president.

The Powell Doctrine is to use maximum military power to achieve a clear objective; the Obama Doctrine evidently is to use minimal military power to create a vague impression. Message: I care about defeating ISIS, for now.

If the president intended to catch up to public opinion, he hasn’t gotten there yet. A Fox News poll last week found that 57 percent of people think our actions against the Islamic State haven’t been aggressive enough. Sixty percent of Democrats (Jimmy Carter apparently among them) don’t think Obama has been tough enough in taking on Islamic radicals.

The critics include two of his former defense secretaries, both of whom have taken the extraordinary step of publicly criticizing him. Who knows what Chuck Hagel eventually will have to say?

The anti-ISIS campaign is a brilliant tactical success, in the sense that we are hitting what we target. But it is a strategic nullity.

It is too small to make much of a difference, and there are limits to how much can be done exclusively from the air anyway. We can bomb fixed targets — refineries and bridges — and perhaps tanks and large troop movements. The problem is that ISIS is a guerrilla force not highly vulnerable from the air, and it becomes even less so once it is entrenched in cities.

Regardless, there are no American ground controllers on the front lines, and they are essential to meaningful precision targeting. If they are ruled out — together with the troops necessary to provide protection and logistics — the campaign against ISIS looks like a holding action.

It caused a minor furor when Obama said a few weeks ago that he didn’t have a strategy against ISIS yet. The scandal is that, with American planes dropping bombs in two countries, he still doesn’t.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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