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“Marco Rubio Has No Clue How To Defeat ISIS”: A Collection Of Ideas Ranging From The Irrelevant To The Ridiculous

We ask an awful lot of our presidential candidates. In addition to being forced to shake a million hands, beg for money, and cram any fried foodstuff right into their mouths, they’re supposed to have opinions and ideas about everything. As soon as something important happens in the United States or anywhere else, in short order we expect them to have a “plan” to deal with it, to assure us that once they take office, the problem will be solved forthwith.

A couple of weeks ago, ISIS was a serious challenge the next president will have to deal with, but in the wake of the attacks in Paris, candidates are now expected to have an ISIS plan, a specific set of actions they’ll take that will eliminate the terrorist group once and for all. Not everyone has come up with one yet, but what we’ve seen so far is not going to inspire a whole lot of faith that ISIS’s days are numbered come January 2017.

Consider, for example, Marco Rubio, the establishment’s golden boy and one of the “serious” GOP candidates. When it comes to foreign policy in particular, people will look to Rubio, since by virtue of his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he’s better informed than most of his primary competitors. Rubio delivered his plan to defeat ISIS last week, and it’s a remarkable document. Let’s walk through its main points.

Rubio begins with the requisite statement of steely resolve: “When I am president, what I will do to defeat ISIL is very simple: whatever it takes.” Inspiring! Then he dives into the details. “First, I would protect the homeland by immediately stopping the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States,” he says. I won’t bother going over again how wrong it is to think that stopping Syrian refugees will protect us from an attack, but we can at least all agree that doing so certainly won’t help “defeat” ISIS.

“Next, I would reverse defense sequestration so we have the capabilities to go on the offense against ISIL,” Rubio says. This is equally silly. You can argue that the budget cuts forced by sequestration are a bad thing, but the reason we haven’t yet banished ISIS from the earth isn’t that our defense budget is too skimpy. It’s not like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is saying, “Mr. President, we could take ISIS out and bring a peaceful, democratic government to that area, but we can’t do it without more tanks and helicopters — and I just don’t have the money.” Our resources are more than ample for whatever military action we might want to take.

Next, Rubio says “I would build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria to aid local forces on the ground.” Also, “I would demand that Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government grant greater autonomy to Sunnis, and would provide direct military support to Sunnis and the Kurds if Baghdad fails to support them. I would back those demands with intense diplomatic pressure and the leverage of greater American military assistance to Iraq.” So that’s a mix of things the Obama administration is trying to do (though somehow Rubio would manage to convince other countries to put in troops where Obama hasn’t been able to; maybe Obama’s diplomatic pressure hasn’t been “intense” enough), plus something that sounds like he wants to set up an independent Sunni quasi-state within Iraq, like what the Kurds have. That’s…interesting. Shouldn’t be any complications there.

And finally, “Cutting off oxygen to ISIL also requires defeating Assad in Syria. I would declare no-fly zones to ground Assad’s air force and coalition-controlled ‘safe zones’ in the country to stop his military.” If you read that without knowing anything, you might think Rubio believes that Assad is supporting ISIS and not fighting it. But anyhow, he’ll just “defeat Assad,” whom we’re not actually fighting at the moment. Does that mean an invasion? If not, what? And “safe zones” sound nice, but how many tens of thousands of American troops would be required to create and maintain them?

Now keep in mind: This collection of ideas ranging from the irrelevant to the ridiculous is the best plan the GOP’s best foreign policy candidate can devise.

The problem isn’t that Marco Rubio is some kind of idiot, even if you’d be tempted to conclude that upon reading his “plan.” The problem is that ISIS presents an unusually difficult challenge, where every possible course of action is either foreclosed before it begins or brings huge complications along with it. That’s why when Hillary Clinton — who has more foreign policy experience than all the Republican candidates put together — gave a speech last week outlining the course she’d like to follow on ISIS, it was terribly frustrating, in many ways more hope than plan. Clinton at least acknowledges the complexity of the situation — for instance, our ally Saudi Arabia isn’t helping us fight ISIS, while our adversary Iran is, all while the two countries wage proxy battles against each other. If the next president can untie that knot, it would be a wonder.

Presidential candidates never acknowledge that some challenges are so difficult that success is uncertain at most. They don’t say, “Boy, this one’s a doozy, but I’ll do my best.” They say that if they’re elected, all our problems foreign and domestic will be swept away. It’s when they try to explain exactly how they’re going to get there that the future doesn’t look so bright.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, November 23, 2015

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, ISIS, Marco Rubio | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right’s Rekindled Affection For Russia’s Putin”: Back To Drawing Hearts On Their Pictures Of Putin

It was early last year when Republicans decided Russian President Vladimir Putin was an autocrat worthy of their gushing affections. In March 2014, Rudy Giuliani (R) said of Putin, “That’s what you call a leader.” The same month, Mike Rogers, at the time the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, expressed his own admiration: “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close. They’ve been running circles around us.”

At one point last summer, a Fox News personality went so far as to say she wanted to see Putin serve as “head of the United States,” at least for a little while.

By late last year, however, Republicans were no longer drawing hearts on their pictures of Putin. Russia’s economy was deteriorating quickly; Putin was isolated on the international stage; Russia’s standing and credibility around the world was in tatters; and the sanctions President Obama helped impose on Russia were making a real difference.

Suddenly, the U.S. conservatives who’d enrolled in the Putin fan-club fell quiet, realizing that their contempt for the American president led them to praise the wrong foreign leader.

As of this week, however, many Republicans have apparently come full circle.

One day after President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin made little headway in their standoff over Syria at their first formal meeting in more than two years, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is agreeing with Putin on his backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad. […]

 “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, [Putin’s] getting an ‘A’ and our president is not doing so well,” he said.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative voice at the Washington Post, added this morning, “In taking this action just days after meeting with President Obama, Putin is delivering one more finger in the eye of a president whom he continues to out-wit and out-muscle.”

Yes, we’ve apparently reached the point again at which Republicans once more see Putin as some kind of strategic mastermind.

As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman explained yesterday, [T]oday’s reigning cliche is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart…. Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power.”

For Republicans, the response seems to be, “At least Putin is going after targets in Syria.” What the White House’s GOP critics have refused to acknowledge for the last 14 months is that President Obama has launched thousands of airstrikes against ISIS targets.

There are two main differences between Putin’s engagement in Syria and Obama’s. The first is that the size of Obama’s military commitment is vastly larger. The second is that Russian lawmakers actually authorized Putin’s mission, while the Republican-run Congress in the United States has done literally nothing since the American military offensive began in August 2014, preferring to watch developments unfold on TV while Obama’s mission continues.

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum added this morning, “Do you know how many military bases the US has in the Middle East? Nearly two dozen. Plus the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Plus a whole bunch of close allies. And we’re supposed to be quaking in our boots because Putin hastily upgraded a single aging base in Latakia under pressure from his sole remaining ally? You’re kidding, right?”

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 1, 2015

October 2, 2015 Posted by | GOP, Syria, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Tinker Bell School Of Foreign Policy”: The GOP Presidential Field’s Dangerous Fantasy On Iraq And Syria

Last week, Jeb Bush told an audience in California, “It is strength, and will, and clarity of purpose that make all the difference.” This is the Tinker Bell school of foreign policy that has spread over most of the Republican presidential field. Clap if you believe in a stable Middle East where Syria is rid of ISIS, Al Nusra, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and any Iranian influence. Clap if you believe Iraq will be safe for religious minorities and free of undue Iranian influence, too.

Candidates who want to lead on foreign policy issues — like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham — are offering the American people variations of a very implausible U.S. strategy in the Middle East. And they are underselling the grave costs that even the architects of this policy admit.

In the case of Syria, Bush has argued that “defeating ISIS requires defeating Assad, but we have to make sure that his regime is not replaced by something as bad or worse.” Careful readers of this space may remember that this same strategy was enunciated by Rubio, who said, “The reason Obama hasn’t put in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS is because he doesn’t want to upset Iran,” which is Assad’s main ally in the region.

At the time I said that Rubio’s statement was dumber than a brick in a tumble-dryer, betraying a total misunderstanding of the conflict by failing to grasp that ISIS and Iran are on opposing sides of the conflict. I was wrong; Rubio does, in fact, grasp this basic dynamic. It’s just that he — and, it turns out, Bush — believe that the United States can actually defeat Assad and Assad’s enemies simultaneously.

In fact, Rubio, Bush, and Graham believe that the only way to defeat one is to defeat the other. Hawkish policy advisers who like the sound of multiple victories at once go back and forth on conspiracy theories as to whether there is some explicit or implicit agreement between Assad’s Shiite regime and ISIS’s rabidly Sunni forces.

The strategy of defeating ISIS and Assad and Al Nusra all at once originates with Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, who co-authored a white paper on defeating ISIS with Jessica D. Lewis. Even the authors of the paper, normally possessed of supreme confidence in the power of American leadership, seem to admit that it will be a costly and difficult task. And yet, they see no alternative.

Then there’s Syria’s neighbor, Iraq. Bush last week held out the “success” of the 2007 surge in Iraq as an object lesson for re-engaging in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of the surge, which tamped down violence in the hopes of creating a way for sectarian elements to broker a deal. At the time, Jeb’s brother helped tip the scales to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a corrupt and sectarian figure himself. And that government could not come to a status of forces agreement, and so the United States left.

The very possibility of asserting U.S. leadership in this region is hampered by our failures in the surge. ISIS has proven itself very effective in punishing and killing Sunni tribal leaders who were known to have collaborated with U.S. forces during the Sunni “Awakening” of 2007. The calculation on the ground in 2015 may be that finding some accommodation with the radicals of ISIS is a safer bet than trusting that the U.S. military won’t leave them to be slaughtered in the near future.

How did we get here? During the heady days of 2013, as news reports were flooded with confusing accounts of a use of chemical weapons in Syria, Frederick Kagan’s interpretation of the Syrian scene was that four distinct forces were at work: Assad and his military, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda affiliates, and the Free Syrian Army. Kagan concluded, “The only hope of managing Syria’s chemical weapons threat lies with the success of the FSA.”

The Free Syrian Army has not only disintegrated since that time, but many of its fighters have defected to ISIS or Al Nusra. And the possibility that American air support would create a moral hazard — including a bandwagoning effect in which not-so-secret Islamists joined or even overwhelmed a rebel coalition putatively led by the FSA — never seemed to cross his mind.

At the time, Kagan defined U.S. vital interests this way: “depriving Iran of its forward staging area in the Levant and preventing Al Qaeda from establishing a safe haven there.” It is because U.S. interests are defined so broadly that so many Republican presidential candidates are advocating what sounds like an insane strategy: dropping 10,000 to 20,000 American troops across northern Iraq and Syria, and marshaling, somehow, a coalition of regional “moderate” Sunni forces that will defeat at least three battle-hardened sides in a brutal, zero-sum, and long-lasting civil war.

Beyond that, the Kagan-GOP hopeful strategy is to somehow re-construct a “moderate” force like the Free Syrian Army as a “New Syrian Force,” in order to have someone to hand power over to when this conflict winds down. For now, the idea of a final victor in the battle for Syria is labeled “TBD.” In Iraq, the same.

Notably, the Kagan plan leaves open the possibility that Syrian moderates may be insufficient to the incredible tasks U.S. interests assign them. And further, Kagan, though very much a supporter of U.S. leadership, admits that U.S. forces would be entering an extremely confusing battlefield situation where ISIS has captured enough war materiel to disguise themselves as other forces, a trick they’ve used effectively against the Iraqi security forces.

Because the overriding regional concern of Republican hawks is the de-legitimization of the Iranian regime, policy experts and candidates are already ruling out the most obvious ways of defeating ISIS, such as collaborating with and strengthening Assad’s forces and the Iraqi army in their respective territories. Instead, the idea is to defeat everyone at once, at low cost, without ugly alliances, and to the benefit of unnamed good guys.

And you thought the first regime change in Iraq was tough!

As an electoral strategy, it is absolutely nuts that Republicans would preemptively tell the American people, “Elect me and I’ll put American troops back on the ground in Iraq.” And then add, “And Syria, too, and with allies TBD, and final victors TBD.” This seems like a 2016 death wish. Not just for Republican electoral ambitions, but for American troops, American prestige, and American power.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, August 17, 2015

August 18, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP Presidential Candidates, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“John McCain Is A Dangerous Radical”: He Has Advocated Attacking Roughly Half The Eastern Hemisphere’s Land Mass

It should be obvious by now that John McCain wants to attack everyone, everywhere. In September 2013, Mother Jones made a map of the world showing that McCain has advocated attacking roughly half the Eastern Hemisphere’s land mass. Now he wants to attack basically everyone in Syria. Even the hawkish Jeffrey Goldberg thinks this is a bit much:

McCain’s second criticism: Obama is not attacking the root cause of the Syrian war, which is the behavior of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters in Iran. He said the U.S. should be bombing government targets at the same time it is bombing Assad’s Islamic State enemies. I, too, am dispositionally interventionist, but it seemed to me that McCain was outlining not only a formula for chaos, but also a program that could not possibly be sold to the American people.

I asked him this question: “Wouldn’t the generals say to you, ‘You want me to fight ISIS, and you want me to fight the guys who are fighting ISIS, at the same time? Why would we bomb guys who are bombing ISIS? That would turn this into a crazy standoff.’ ”

“Our ultimate job is not only to defeat ISIS but to give the Syrian people the opportunity to prevail as well,” McCain answered. “Remember, there are 192,000 dead Syrians thanks to Assad. If we do this right, if we do the right kind of training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army, plus air strikes, plus taking out Bashar Assad’s air assets, we could reverse the battlefield equation.”

The U.S. could conceivably wage war on two fronts against two vicious parties that are also warring against each other, on a battlefield in which another set of America’s enemies — Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are also fighting. But this is a much too complicated mission for any post-Iraq War American president to prudently tackle, even a president not quite so reluctant as Obama.

For those Americans who are moving toward McCain and away from Paul on crucial questions concerning the U.S.’s role in the world, I can’t imagine that they would be able to stomach such a war, either.

If you think John McCain actually understands the complexity of trying to hold together an alliance to fight ISIS that includes Sunni governments in Amman, Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara and Shiite governments in Baghdad and Teheran, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. The war in Syria is sectarian in nature, as are most of the problems within Iraq.

If you are trying to get Baghdad to govern inclusively, you can’t take the side of the Sunnis in Syria. If you can get consensus from the Sunni powers to eliminate the most radical and effective army on their side of the fight, then you’ve accomplished something. But, if you take it too far, everything will blow up in your face.

I wake up every day thanking fate that John McCain never got to order our armed forces around.

 

By: Martin Longman, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 14, 2014

September 15, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, John McCain, Middle East | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Promising Tools Than Brute Force”: Obama Keeps His Options Open On Dealing With Islamic State

President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State may be hard to pin down — maddeningly so, some complain — but it is likely to work far better than anything his bellicose critics advocate.

Perhaps the president will eliminate any confusion when he addresses the nation Wednesday, but I doubt it. Based on what he told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” there may be no way to reduce Obama’s fluid and perhaps deliberately ambiguous thinking to a black-or-white, all-or-nothing dichotomy.

“This is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war,” Obama said. Later in the interview, he added that “we’re not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops” and that “our goal should not be to think that we can occupy every country where there’s a terrorist organization.”

Clear? Kind of.

We understand that the president will not announce the deployment of U.S. troops in large numbers and that he does not intend for the United States to ­re-invade and re-occupy Iraq. But we know that U.S. military advisers and Special Operations teams have already been active in both Iraq and Syria. And since Obama described the fight against the Islamic State as “similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years,” we can assume there will be some U.S. military presence on the ground, however covert and limited.

A strong believer in multilateralism, the president asserted that “we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.”

True? Again, kind of.

The 10-nation coalition assembled last week to fight the Islamic State — the United States plus Australia and NATO members Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark — is much less than meets the eye, operationally speaking. Britain, France, Australia and Canada have the will and capacity to project military power overseas. The others, not so much.

As far as regional cooperation is concerned, perhaps Turkey can be counted on to help tear down the Islamic State. But assistance from two key powers in the Middle East that also find themselves threatened by the jihadist group — Iran and Saudi Arabia — promises to be tenuous and situational at best.

To further complicate a situation that already seems hopelessly complicated, every blow against the Islamic State is a blow in favor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime. But Obama implied on “Meet the Press” that Assad is a secondary concern and said that, “when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we’re putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL,” another name for the Islamic State.

In internal administration discussions, Obama has reportedly been skeptic-in-chief about the capabilities of the ostensibly “moderate” Syrian rebels. On Sunday, the president was less than fulsome in his praise of groups such as the Free Syrian Army, which he noted “have been on the defensive.” He said, “We’re going to have to develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory,” indicating that no such opposition now exists.

It all sounds kind of circular and vague, implying there is much that may be planned, or already taking place, that we know nothing about. Obama seems to give himself the option of confronting the Islamic State directly when he chooses, ignoring it when he feels it can be ignored, using airstrikes when he believes they are needed, cooperating with adversarial or unreliable governments only when he believes it is in the U.S. interest to do so.

I don’t know if it will work. But I’m confident that the hawkish alternative — more bombs, more boots, more bluster — would be a tragic failure.

Massive airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria probably would not be enough to destroy the Islamic State without ground support. In Iraq, such support has been inconsistent. In Syria, it could come only from Assad’s brutal army. If U.S. troops are not an option, should we encourage Saudi Arabia and even Iran to deploy their forces? To me, that sounds like fighting a fire with gasoline.

To the hawks, Obama’s cautious, patient, this-could-take-years approach to dealing with the Islamic State will be emotionally unsatisfying. But, given the complexity of the situation, subtlety and indirection are more promising tools than brute force. Locking the United States into the kind of rigid strategy that critics demand would likely ensure only that this crisis sows the seeds of the next one.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 8, 2014

September 9, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, ISIS, War Hawks | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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