Obama’s confession that he “doesn’t have a strategy yet” regarding ISIS forces in Syria may be worthy of critique as an exercise in public-relations, but the substance of that statement should not strictly occasion reproach. Not all problems have solutions that are immediately obvious—and unthinkable though this may be to some, some problems may have no useful solution achievable by the United States and its military. When McCain proposes that the United States expand its intervention against ISIS to target its forces in Syria, he is arguing in favor of attacking an army that opposed a government McCain himself argued last year we should have bombed and overthrown. The expansion of ISIS into Iraq has likewise seen the military forces of the United States and Iran—another country McCain has advocated bombing in the past—fighting on the same side. This paradoxical moral and political terrain is not something we can blithely ignore and dismiss in a rush to knock out ISIS in Syria as villain du jour. McCain’s casual observation that “political transition” is required in Syria ignores how very unfavorable just about any realistically imaginable outcome of the Syrian conflicts looks today.
But it is that very tortured history that complicates any attempt to return there. U.S. regular forces were no longer in Iraq because the Iraqi government was unwilling to accept the legal immunity (Status of Forces agreement) the U.S. required to maintain its troops there. Many of the Sunni minority of Northern Iraq supported ISIS’s advance because the Iraqi central government is both corrupt and relentlessly sectarianin favor of the Shia majority, despite the U.S.’s efforts during its years of influence to promote centrist, non-sectarian candidates and policies. The U.S. did not draw the borders that put together the diverse and fractious ethno-religious groups that inhabit Iraq today, but it is responsible for smashing apart the fragile secular political order that Saddam had brutally instituted there, replacing his despotism with a state of perpetual inter-communal war far more sanguinary than the old regime.
McCain also calls for reforming Iraq’s political leadership, but the U.S. has argued consistently for non-sectarian political reform and has not spared any opportunities to lay blame upon former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki for his political failings—which in combination with domestic political pressure, led to his relinquishment of power on August 14th.
Ultimately, though, McCain’s emphasis lies, as always, on an increased military effort; but U.S. air power has already made over 100 strikes against ISIS forces, in addition to providing extensive supports in logistics, intelligence gathering, and electronic warfare (including missions directed against ISIS forces in Syrian territory). What McCain really wants is a larger-scale air campaign such as those during the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Air power is indeed the United States strongest military asset, and one which is relatively safe from enemy retaliation when compared to boots on the ground. But air power is also a very blunt instrument, effective at destroying large, obvious targets such as tanks and military installations (such as Iraq’s conventional army in the Gulf War of 1991), but very difficult to use against lightly-armed insurgents that can blend in with the civilian population.
The morally defensible and tactically effective way to use airpower is against targets of opportunity identified by intelligence assets or forward observers on the ground (unless you don’t mind wasting innocent civilian lives while achieving little military effect, a trade off which has a track record of moral and strategic failure). And that is exactly what the U.S. military is already engaged in doing: U.S. air strikes have been directed to destroy artillery shelling ethnic refugee camps, defend Kurdish towns from their attackers, knock out captured Iraqi tanks, and provide air cover for Iraqi forces (such as for the recent recapture of the Mosul dam). Undoubtedly, small teams of U.S. troops were deployed on the ground to coordinate several of these strikes, just as McCain has called for.
So, it turns out the United States is already quietly doing quite a bit to oppose ISIS, McCain’s claims to the contrary, and while these actions may lack the grandiose strategic alliances, grandstanding publicity, and massive aerial bombing campaigns of the Bush years, that may be just as well. Already, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed up US and Iranian logistics and firepower, have achieved some modest victories in August, relieving the besieged town of Amerli and recapturing the Mosul dam–victories achieved at a fraction of the cost of the US resources that a wide scale intervention would entail.
The United States’ own strategic and moral imperatives are far from clear as regards the complicated relationship between Syria, Iraq, Iran, ISIS, and moderate Syrian rebel groups, and ultimately the United States’ interests are far better served (and realistically, can only be achieved) by local actors of the region, both military and political, rather than through some new crusade that bears America’s signature upon it. By applying both force and diplomacy in a restrained and judicious manner, the United States is not only reducing its own responsibility for the bloody and byzantine sectarian rivalries of the Middle East, (U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs having long been the chief motivator of anti-Western terrorism) but may well be doing a better job of supporting its allies in the region.