It is astonishing that nearly six years into the tenure of any administration the commander-in-chief would acknowledge publicly that he has no strategy for addressing an evident, serious threat to American interests.
Last week, marauders from the so-called Islamic State overran Tabqa air base in Syria, where MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems, are stored. These are the weapons that can bring down commercial aircraft. Considering the pledge of this group’s leader to take the war to the United States, they now have the means to do so whether targeting the takeoff of a U.S. commercial airliner from Dubai, or in a few weeks after penetrating the Mexican border, from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas.
Historically, every new administration spends the first year of its tenure enunciating goals — essentially, to keep the peace and establish a climate at home and abroad in which American interests can be advanced — and then developing strategies for achieving them in specific regions of the world. The process begins with the president stating his view of what our regional interests are, inviting the intelligence community and the Cabinet to identify how those interests are threatened, and then tasking these principals and staff to develop a range of integrated political, economic and military measures for defending and advancing American interests throughout the world. By the end of the first year, the president has evaluated the options submitted to him and has made decisions among them. He then goes about implementing them by publishing and explaining them to three constituencies — the American people, the U.S. Congress and our allies. While this process involves hard work and disciplined leadership, it’s not rocket science. Doing it well yields enormous benefits. It engenders confidence among the American people and nurtures cohesion and support among our allies. Finally, it puts adversaries on notice that we are a serious nation that has the will, the capability, a strategic plan and the resources to prevail against any challenge they might consider posing.
Since World War II, U.S. presidents have engaged this strategic process as a proven means for defining and announcing our interests overseas, assessing how they are threatened, and developing effective strategies designed to deter, or — if deterrence fails — to prevail in any conflict well in advance of any such conflict. In the Reagan administration, I had the privilege of managing that process, and in the ensuing years, it proved invaluable not only in identifying — and pre-empting — challenges still over the horizon, but in crisis management as well. In the remaining years of the current administration, there is still time for President Obama to lead in the resolution of the plethora of crises before us — starting with the threats posed by the Islamic State and concurrently in Ukraine, China and Iran.
Modern terrorism by Islamist groups has posed a “clear and present danger” to our country for more than 30 years. In Iraq, we are faced with an especially challenging form of it. A well-financed, well-armed and well-trained barbarous force has declared its intention, inter alia, to conduct operations against the United States on its way to establishing an Islamic caliphate of global reach and jurisdiction.
Given the plausibility of their executing such a plan, the first comment our president must make is that this movement of uncivilized savages puts us all at risk — from Irbil to London, Chicago, Tokyo and Beijing — and that there is no basis for trying to reason with brainwashed, ideological, totalitarian, genocidal criminals bent on pursuit of an imperial strategy. The second is that they must be destroyed. Mr. Obama’s statement from Estonia on Wednesday was a good, though belated, beginning.
Developing a political, economic and military strategy for containing and then destroying the Islamic State is not something that will come easily for the president, given his proclivities toward engagement and toothless diplomacy. Yet in some respects, his task has been rendered less onerous. Politicians in every civilized state — especially European states that have known this menace was coming for years — understand that if they don’t join in countering this scourge in Syria and Iraq, they will face it in their own countries before long. This week, the president’s task is to forge consensus among his political counterparts in Western Europe to direct NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove and the NATO military committee to work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for overcoming this menace.
Economically, it’s time to lean hard on the Gulf Arabs to shut down their formal and informal funding of radical Islamists. The diplomacy needed to get this done ought also to be a little easier than it would have been even five years ago. Their tenure is at risk, and they are palpably conscious of it. Separately, our work with European allies should involve closing their financial institutions to Islamist transactions.
The U.S. military must work with Kurdish, Kuwaiti, Egyptian, United Arab Emirates, Saudi, Jordanian and Iraqi forces to forge a strategy, first to contain and then to destroy the Islamic State’s forces. U.S. and allied tactical aviation can help limit the enemy’s mobility and provide fire support during engagements. However, the training and supervision of ground forces from the aforementioned countries in the struggle to regain lost territory must fall to experienced U.S. special operations advisory personnel — several thousand of them.
By their brashness and brutality, the Islamists may have provided an impetus and a window for the civilized world to come together and reverse their gains. It will take extraordinary leadership from Washington to oversee this battle and stay the course. That window may not remain open for long.
As soon as we have stemmed this tide — a year from now — we must turn to the agenda that we have for so long avoided — bringing the moderate Arabs, Kurds and Israel into a sustained conversation on regional security that leads toward reconciling their differences. To do so offers a revered place in history for the American president. Yet it will require a far better understanding of the nature of the challenge than has thus far been apparent, together with the courage and commitment to lead such an effort successfully.
Robert McFarlane served as President Reagan’s national-security adviser. He is currently a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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