Rome–In 2005, when President George W. Bush was trying to re-justify the US-led invasion of Iraq, a new rationale emerged from the feverish minds of his foreign policy advisors. The war in Iraq was really about keeping terrorists from attacking the US homeland. More than a decade later, President Barack Obama has reworked that justification with his wars on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS everywhere.

That strategy isn’t working, either, if its meant to “degrade” ISIS, as Obama once put it.

During his 2016 State of the Union speech, Obama demanded that Congress authorize a bombing campaign against the Islamic State on the grounds that, “Priority number one is protecting the American people.” His appeal was an update of Bush’s 2005 assertion that, in dealing with al-Qaeda in Iraq, “There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”

Back in 2005, Richard A. Clarke, the former counter-terrorism coordinator, critiqued Bush’s policy as being counterproductive because the invasion had made the country a base for a rejuvenated al-Qaeda. In words that could easily serve as a warning of our penchant for constant warfare today, he noted:

“The Administration was very big on slogans which we call bumper stickers. A few words which can stick in your mind or stick on your bumper that serve as a substitute for analysis and a substitute for debate. So during this phase, early in the American invasion and occupation, we were told various things by the President such as when asked about the threat of terrorists in Iraq, the President famously said, ‘Bring them on.’

His administration coined the phrase, ‘fly paper strategy’ for its involvement in Iraq and its fight against terrorism. The US troops would serve as fly paper—they would attract terrorists and then kill them much as flypaper does to flies.”

My favorite slogan or bumper sticker, which we still hear to this day, developed in this third stage, ‘We’d rather fight them over there, than fight them here.’ ”

Obama’s slogan, as delivered in 2014: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Obama, like Bush operates primarily from a narrow focus of military action against ISIS which eclipes thought about how to reach a political solution in Syria, Iraq or other terrorist hotbeds (Yemen, Egypt) where a disgruntled population provides fertile ground for radicalism. Unlike Bush, Obama is hell bent on keeping large numbers of US troops away from the Middle East. That’s not the same as doing nothing militarily, though bombing ISIS has the advantage of avoiding US casualties and keeping our activity out of the public eye.

In December, as ported in the Washington Post, Obama laid out other elements of his plan, all focused on the Islamic State. Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Military assistance to anti-Islamic State local ­forces. Block the group’s financing. Stop the flow of foreigners rushing to join it. And, of course, better “messaging” and spin-jobs to persuade the public that the US is winning.

ISIS, however, isn’t cooperating. It has upended the idea that if the US hits them ‘over there,’ they won’t hit the US  at home. The Islamic State’s loose-knit coterie of followers can unpredictably strike at the US–be it San Bernardino or Orlando– as well as friends and allies elsewhere, in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Bangladesh or Baghdad or Saudi Arabia. The idea that you can eliminate terror by bombing alone is under challenge.

The Obama Administration as well as some independent analysts suggest there is good news hidden in the most recent horrific mass terror attacks: the assaults are a desperate reaction by Islamic State to its battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria as well as Libya. The ISIS bloody message suggests that despite current setbacks, it’s still alive and kicking.

It is alive in large part because no political outreach to the disgruntled Sunni Muslim minority has been initiated and sustained in either Syria or Iraq, not to mention chaotic Libya. In Iraq, the factional, Shiite dominated government in Baghdad is busy splitting up much of the country’s shrinking oil income. Iran’s puppet Iraqi militias specialize in terrorizing Sunni civilians even as ISIS makes sure to enrage Sunnis by wantonly killing scores of Iraqi Shiites.

In Syria,  Russia has stepped in to prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad with aerial bombing, making some sort of political settlement  unlikely. Iran shows no sign of ending its unwavering support for Assad.

It appears that the US has little influence to alter peacemaking events in either place. Secretary of State John Kerry has shuttled around the Middle East trying to persuade various combatants, including Russia, to work out a political solution. Without one, you can be sure we will be fighting ‘them’ there as well as ‘here’ for a long time. As Bush found out, military action can only go so far.

The Washington Post on Obama’s overall strategy.

Richard Clarke on ‘fly paper’ theory. Clarke says ISIS a “bigger threat” than al-Qaeda.

 

 

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