As Robby Soave has noted, Hillary Clinton just laid out an aggressive strategy to contain ISIS and violence in Iraq and Syria. "This is a worldwide fight and America must lead it," the presidential candidate told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Watch the speech on C-SPAN).
Her plan is, to my mind, a barely warmed-over dish of what we've already been doing with weak results: building coalitions in the region, dropping bombs, helping allies, threatening enemies, and the like. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the factions that are simultaneously fighting ISIS and each other, and the complexity only grows when you start factoring in Western countries such as the United States to Russia to France, which is bombing ISIS targets more now after the Paris attacks. Clinton reiterated that Bashar al-Assad must step down and that he's killing more Syrians in the region than ISIS. Given that Syria is essentially a client of Iran and Russia, it seems unlikely that Clinton's objectives will be easily attained. At the same time, Iran, Russia, and Syria are fighting ISIS, as are Kurdish forces that are also fighting ISIS but who are also enemies of Iran and Syria.
Somehow, after a decade-plus of occupying Iraq, the U.S. government not only failed to create a stable government in that country, it has managed to make the entire region less stable than before the 2003 invasion. The idea that the United States can or should be "leading" the next charge is a reach, to say the least.
If her speech (transcript after the jump) is less than clarifying or inspiring, at least Clinton said this:
Congress should swiftly pass an updated authorization to use military force. That will send a message to friend and foe alike that the United States is committed to this fight. The time for delay is over. We should get this done.
Let me amend this slightly: Congress should openly and actively debate passing a new authorization to use military force (AUMF) rather than relying on the one passed in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks (and whose overly broad scope, which covered all parties somehow related to those attacks, clearly doesn't cover ISIS). Clinton isn't exactly leading on this, as various proposals for AUMFs have been defeated earlier this year. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have called for just such a thing:
ISIS is not going away.
But Congress has been strangely silent about the war. We criticize the President, but won't vote to authorize, stop or refine what he is doing. Congressional silence sends a message. Our allies wonder whether we have the resolve to work with them to stop this threat. ISIS must take comfort in the seeming ambivalence of Congress. Most damning, our troops—ordered to risk their lives thousands of miles from home—wonder whether Congress even supports the dangerous missions they must carry out every day.
Earlier AUMFs failed partly because they included expiration dates and strictly limited the scope of American actions, especially regarding putting troops back in the Middle East; their failure meant that the administration and interventionists continue to have a free hand based on the essentially unlimited nature of the 2001 AUMF.
Even doves are calling for a new conversation about the limits of force, with Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) saying,
"The situation in France was a horrible tragedy, ISIS is evil and they need to be defeated," says Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. "If we're going to commit our troops, we're going to put them out there to fight for our country and die for our country, we at least ought to meet our constitutional responsibilities."
Once, Jones was arguably the biggest hawk in Congress (among other things, he led the charge to rename congressional potatoes "Freedom Fries" rather than "French Fries" when France refused to join military actions in Iraq). Over time, he changed his position, and now makes a point of writing the family of every solider killed in combat.
All Americans—and especially our representatives—should agree to this much: It is well past time to stop pretending that the resolution passed in 2001 to find the perpetrators and enablers of the 9/11 attacks plausibly governs today's actions against ISIS. A new authorization would at least begin a discussion in which our leaders would have to responsibly debate what course of action they prefer and why.
Click below to read Clinton's full speech.
Clinton's speech at CFR:
When the United States was hit on 9/11, our allies treated that attack against one as an attack against all. Now, it's our turn to stand in solidarity with France and all of our friends. We cherish the same values. We face the same adversaries. We must share the same determination.
After a major terrorist attack, every society faces a choice between fear and resolve. The world's great democracies can't sacrifice our values or turn our backs on those in need. Therefore, we must choose resolve. And we must lead the world to meet this threat.
Now, let's be clear about what we're facing. Beyond Paris in recent days, we've seen deadly terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and a Russian civilian airline destroyed over the Sinai. At the heart of today's new landscape of terror is ISIS. They persecute religious and ethnic minorities; kidnap and behead civilians; murder children. They systematically enslave, torture and rape women and girls.
ISIS operates across three mutually reinforcing dimensions: a physical enclave in Iraq and Syria; an international terrorist network that includes affiliates across the region and beyond; and an ideological movement of radical jihadism. We have to target and defeat all three, and time is of the essence.
ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach and capabilities. We have to break the group's momentum and then its back. Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS.
But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks, only to face metastasizing threats down the road, so we also have to play and win the long game. We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it's Al Qaida or ISIS or some other network.
An immediate war against an urgent enemy and a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots will not be easily torn out. It will require sustained commitment in every pillar of American power. This is a worldwide fight, and American must lead it.
Our strategy should have three main elements. One, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing arms and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.
Let me start with the campaign to defeat ISIS across the region. The United States and our international coalition has been conducting this fight for more than a year. It's time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set.
A key obstacle standing in the way is a shortage of good intelligence about ISIS and its operations, so we need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services. Our goal should be to achieve the kind of penetration we accomplished with Al Qaida in the past. This would help us identify and eliminate ISIS' command and control and its economic lifelines.
A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary, but not sufficient, and we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS. Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here. If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.
Now, the obstacles to achieving this are significant. On the Iraqi side of the border, Kurdish forces have fought bravely to defend their own lands and to re-take towns from ISIS, but the Iraqi national army has struggled, and it's going to take more work to get it up to fighting shape. As part of that process, we may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.
Ultimately, however, a ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight. But that won't happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS.
Now, we've been in a similar place before in Iraq. In the first Sunni awakening in 2007, we were able to provide sufficient support and assurances to the Sunni tribes to persuade them to join us in rooting out Al Qaida. Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Maliki's rule, those tribes were betrayed and forgotten.
So the task of bringing Sunnis off the sidelines into this new fight will be considerably more difficult. But nonetheless, we need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation, and finally stand up a national guard. Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won't do that, the coalition should do so directly.
On the Syrian side, the big obstacle to getting more ground forces to engage ISIS, beyond the Syrian Kurds who are already deep in the fight, is that the viable Sunni opposition groups remain understandably preoccupied with fighting Assad who, let us remember, has killed many more Syrians than the terrorists have. But they are increasingly under threat from ISIS as well.
So we need to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well. To support them, we should immediately deploy the special operations force President Obama has already authorized, and be prepared to deploy more as more Syrians get into the fight. And we should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units.
Our increased support should go hand in hand with increased support from our Arab and European partners, including special forces who can contribute to the fight on the ground. We should also work with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no-fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air. Opposition forces on the ground, with material support from the coalition, could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.
This combined approach would help enable the opposition to retake the remaining stretch of the Turkish border from ISIS, choking off its supply lines. It would also give us new leverage in the diplomatic process that Secretary Kerry is pursuing.
Of course, we've been down plenty of diplomatic dead- ends before in this conflict. But we have models for how seemingly intractable multi-sectarian civil wars do eventually end. We can learn lessons from Lebanon and Bosnia about what it will take. And Russia and Iran have to face the fact that continuing to prop up a vicious dictator will not bring stability.
Right now, I'm afraid, President Putin is actually making things somewhat worse.
Now, to be clear, though, there is an important role for Russia to help in resolving the conflict in Syria. And we have indicated a willingness to work with them toward an outcome that preserves Syria as a unitary, nonsectarian state, with protections for the rights of all Syrians and to keep key state institutions intact.
There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad's rule.
Now, much of this strategy on both sides of the border hinges on the roles of our Arab and Turkish partners. And we must get them to carry their share of the burden, with military intelligence and financial contributions, as well as using their influence with fighters and tribes in Iraq and Syria.
Countries like Jordan have offered more, and we should take them up on it, because ultimately our efforts will only succeed if the Arabs and Turks step up in a much bigger way. This is their fight and they need to act like it.
So far, however, Turkey has been more focused on the Kurds than on countering ISIS. And to be fair, Turkey has a long and painful history with Kurdish terrorist groups. But the threat from ISIS cannot wait. As difficult as it may be, we need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS.
The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS. At the moment, they're focused in other areas because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That's why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.
In September, I laid out a comprehensive plan to counter Iranian influence across the region and its support for terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges. Regional politics are too interwoven. Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.
And as we work out a broader regional approach, we should, of course, be closely consulting with Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East. Israel increasingly shares with our Arab partners and has the opportunity to do more in intelligence and joint efforts as well.
Now, we should have no illusions about how difficult the mission before us really is. We have to fit a lot of pieces together, bring along a lot of partners, move on multiple fronts at once. But if we press forward on both sides of the border, in the air and on the ground, as well as diplomatically, I do believe we can crush ISIS's enclave of terror.
And to support this campaign, Congress should swiftly pass an updated authorization to use military force. That will send a message to friend and foe alike that the United States is committed to this fight. The time for delay is over. We should get this done.
Now, the second element of our strategy looks beyond the immediate battlefield of Iraq and Syria, to disrupt and dismantle global terrorist infrastructure on the ground and online.
A terror pipeline that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing, arms and propaganda around the world has allowed ISIS to strike at the heart of Paris last week and an Al Qaida affiliate to do the same at Charlie Hebdo earlier this year. ISIS is working hard to extend its reach, establish affiliates and cells far from its home base, and despite the significant setbacks it has encountered, not just with ISIS and its ambitious plans, but even Al Qaida, including the death of Osama bin Laden, they are still posing great threats to so many.
Let's take one example. We've had a lot of conversation about ISIS in the last week, let's not forget Al Qaida. They still have the most sophisticated bombmakers, ambitious plotters and active affiliates in places like Yemen and North Africa, so we can't just focus on Iraq and Syria, we need to intensify our counter — our counterterrorism efforts on a wider scope.
Most urgent is stopping the flow of foreign fighters to and from the war zones of the Middle East. Thousands — thousands of young recruits have flocked to Syria from France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and, yes, even the United States. Their western passports make it easier for them to cross borders and eventually return home radicalized and battle hardened. Stemming this tide will require much better coordination and information-sharing among countries every step of the way. We should not stop pressing until Turkey, where most foreign fighters cross into Syria, finally locks down its border.
The United States and our allies need to know and share the identities of every fighter who has traveled to Syria. We also have to be smart and target interventions that will have the greatest impact. For example, we need a greater focus on shutting down key enablers who arrange transportation, documents and more.
When it comes to terrorist financing, we have to go after the nodes that facilitate illicit trade and transactions. The U.N. Security Council should update its terrorism sanctions. They have a resolution that does try to block terrorist financing and other enabling activities, but we have to place more obligations on countries to police their own banks, and the United States, which has quite a record of success in this area, can share more intelligence to help other countries. And once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization. When it comes to blocking terrorist recruitment, we have to identify the hotspots, the specific neighborhoods and villages, the prisons and schools where recruitment happens in clusters, like the neighborhood in Brussels where the Paris attacks were planned. Through partnerships with local law enforcement and civil society, especially with Muslim community leaders, we have to work to tip the balance away from extremism in these hotspots.