It’s appropriate that two of the leading liberal interventionists, both of whom have served in prominent positions in Barack Obama’s administration—are named Power and Slaughter.
Samantha Power, of course, is Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and a leading advocate of using American force overseas, especially when in her opinion civilian casualties can be exaggerated as “genocide.” And Anne-Marie Slaughter, long a foreign policy insider and currently head of the New America Foundation, served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning at the State Department (2009–11). Back in 2011, Power and Slaughter joined Clinton and a handful of White House aides in supporting the US military action to topple Muammar Qaddafi, an action that turned that country into a warring mosaic of militias, terrorists and freelance warlords.
So it’s not surprising that in today’s New York Times, the influential Slaughter issues a clarion call for US military action in both Iraq and Syria. In the piece, “Don’t Fight in Iraq and Ignore Syria,” Slaughter asks what the United States can do about the twin crises, concluding that the answer “may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries.” And she says that the United States should ignore and go outside the United Nations if the UN Security Council won’t authorize action. Arrogantly, she says:
If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power. This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.
So, like the hawks and neoconservatives of the Republican party, Slaughter is blaming Obama for the crisis, since if he acted with force “two years ago” everything in Iraq and Syria would be dandy.
It’s certainly true, as I’ve argued in this space, that the wars in Syria and Iraq have become a single conflict. But the conflict is a regional one, pitting Saudi proxies and allies against Iranian ones, in a war that is both sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite) and a geopolitical, state-vs.-state struggle for regional hegemony. But the solution is political and diplomatic, not military. (Indeed, in Syria the government of President Bashar al-Assad has turned the tide, and he’s winning that war, while in Iraq—after huge setbacks and shock in Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to rally his sectarian Shiite base and recapture cities seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
To ease the crisis, as I wrote yesterday, President Obama ought to wind down US support for Syria’s rebels, who are dominated by Islamists, ISIS and Al Qaeda, thus freeing up Assad’s forces to concentrate on ISIS-held territory in Syria’s north and west. And as The New York Times says in an editorial today, Turkey “should shut its border to militants and to materiel flowing into Syria and Iraq.” That would go far to deprive the Syrian rebels, of all stripes, of the oxygen that they need to fight Assad.
And then the president should order a round-robin of diplomacy with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get them to use their vast influence inside Iraq to end the war there. Most likely, that would involve working with Iraq’s kaleidoscope of political players to settle on a replacement for Maliki, someone who could credibly brings Sunni political leaders into government and strike a workable accord with the Kurds, who’ve carved out a fiefdom in northeast Iraq.
It does appear that Obama, egged on no doubt by liberal-interventionist advisers such as Slaughter and Power, will use limited airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS. It’s possible, still, that the White House will decide against such action, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that Maliki has no intention of heeding the Obama’s demand that he become more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, Maliki is rallying Shiites to his side, even those who might have joined Sunnis and Kurds to push him aside as factions jockey in the wake of the recent elections in Iraq. Even the Times, in its editorial (“A Balancing Act on Iraq”), acknowledges that Obama may well carry out military action against ISIS.
Need we add that countless hawks of the conservative and right-wing variety agree with Slaughter? Says The Wall Street Journal today, in its own editorial:
[Obama’s] abdication on Syria created a mecca for jihadists and his total withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum for regional sectarians and Iran to fill. Mr. Obama could still save Mr. Maliki and reclaim US influence with a diplomatic and military intervention of the kind that Danielle Pletka and Jack Keane laid out in these pages on Tuesday. But if would have to be a large enough intervention to convince Mr. Maliki that it was worth making political compromises with his Kurdish and Sunni opponents.
Pletka and Keane, by the way, call for interdiction bombing against ISIS, providing air cover for an Iraqi offensive, US coordination with Iraqi ground forces, and the use of US Special Forces to guide the Iraqi action.
According to The New York Times, Obama is “considering a targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants …most likely using drones.” But, the Times adds, such strikes would be difficult to carry out, in part because the United States has poor intelligence about ISIS, and so the White House is primarily focused on a “political solution” and “diplomatic options.”
Given the pressure from the GOP hawks and the echoes from Slaughter and Co., it’s a good sign that a fair number of liberals and Democrats in Congress and the establishment are urging Obama to stay out. Today, Obama meets with the four leaders of the Senate and the House, to brief them on the Iraq crisis. The McClatchy story on that meeting, which takes place mid-afternoon on Wednesday, includes the following intelligent comment from Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat:
The president should be wary of calls to intervene militarily through an air campaign that will not affect the strategic balance on the battlefield, and is as likely to alienate the local population as it is to accomplish any tactical objective.… Our limited intelligence and the civilian nature of the battle space make the use of our air power even more problematic.… We do not want to be perceived as siding with Shia over Sunnis in another increasingly sectarian conflict, which would inevitably be the case if we should unintentionally cause Sunni civilian casualties.
And as The Hill reports, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to another US adventure in Iraq, by a margin of 74-16. (The poll addressed only the question of sending US troops, not airstrikes.)