FPI Bulletin: Key Obama Supporters Turn on Troubled ISIS Strategy

November 24, 2015

Ahead of President François Hollande’s visit to the White House this morning, a French diplomat told CBS News that the French leader will deliver a clear message to the American president: “the imminent threat from ISIS is an emergency that requires urgent action.” So far, Obama has refused to acknowledge that the Islamic State’s bloody assault on Paris demands a change in his approach to the threat. “We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through,” the President told reporters just three days after the massacre. Yet now, some of the administration’s closest supporters are challenging the weakness of the President’s effort to degrade and destroy ISIS (also known as ISIL or Daesh).

On Sunday, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I think we have got to be much more aggressive and much more unified in the effort to take on ISIS.” “I think that the resources applied to that mission, frankly, have not been sufficient,” observed Panetta, “We need to increase the tempo of our air strikes, we need to organize ground forces, particularly, the Sunnis and the Kurds and arm them so that they can take territory back from ISIS.” Doing more to stop ISIS is urgent, Panetta explained, because “they are a clear and present danger, not only to Europe, but to this country, as well.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed a similar sense of urgency, saying “we have to be prepared” for an ISIS attack on the U.S. homeland. “I’ve never been more concerned,” Feinstein said, “I read the intelligence faithfully,” she added, “ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding.” Her comments served as a direct rebuttal to the President’s statement, just hours before the Paris massacre, that “From the start our goal has been first to contain [ISIS], and we have contained them.”

Several days later, after receiving a detailed briefing from Secretary of State John Kerry, Feinstein went on the air once again to denounce the shortcomings of the administration’s response. Asked whether Kerry’s explanation allayed her concerns, Feinstein said, “I don't think the approach is sufficient to the job.” “We need to be aggressive now, because ISIL is a quasi-state, the California senator asserted, “ISIL has 30,000 fighters. It's got a civil infrastructure. It's got funding. It's spreading in other countries. And it's a big, big problem.”

Agreeing with Sen. Feinstein, Dr. Michael G. Vickers wrote last week, “Time is not on our side.” In 2011, Obama appointed Vickers to serve as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, a position he held for over four years. A veteran of Army Special Forces as well as the CIA, Vickers served as a senior counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Bush and Obama before his most recent appointment. He wrote, “Whatever we would do if ISIL made good on its threat to attack Washington, D.C. and New York, we should instead do now, before the attack occurs.”

Vickers recommended several major adjustments to the current strategy that would be necessary to defeat ISIS. First, Syria should replace Iraq as the focal point of the U.S. military campaign against ISIS. Second, the pace of airstrikes should increase rapidly. “We conducted as many airstrikes in two months in Afghanistan in 2001 as we have in 16 months in Iraq and Syria,” wrote Vickers. Third, the U.S. should supply substantially more weapons to allied opposition forces in Syria, as well as increasing the number of Special Operations Forces and intelligence operatives who serve as their advisers. Just as American air power and advisors enabled the Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban out of its Afghan strongholds in 2001, the goal of today’s campaign should be to expel ISIS from the proto-state it now controls in the border regions of Iraq and Syria.

The recommendations made by Vickers have much in common with the plan that President Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, unveiled in her address last week to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS,” said Clinton, echoing Sen. Feinstein’s criticism of the President. Like Vickers and Feinstein, Clinton dismissed the current campaign of airstrikes as deficient. Defeating ISIS “starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set,” Clinton said. Next, the former Secretary called for a much more active role for U.S. advisers, “including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.”

Whereas President Obama has authorized the deployment of 50 special operators to work with opposition forces in Syria, Clinton said more would be necessary. Alluding to the failure of Pentagon’s effort to train and equip opposition forces, Clinton said, “we should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units.” Finally, Clinton reiterated her call for a no-fly zone to prevent the Syrian air force from bombing civilians, a plan the President has denigrated, despite growing bipartisan support for its implementation.

The recommendations being made by Feinstein, Vickers, and Clinton are hardly new. More than a year ago, analysts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments reported on the lackluster pace of the air campaign. Months ago, national security experts from across the political spectrum recommended a more active role for U.S. military advisers. In April, prominent Senators from both parties called for establishing no-fly zones as well as humanitarian safe zones in Syria. What’s new is that senior Democrats who have worked closely with Obama are now telling him that the time has come to change his strategy.

While France and others have been the targets of the Islamic State’s most recent atrocities, President Obama should not expect President Hollande or any other head of state to lead the global campaign against ISIS. As Secretary Panetta noted, “the U.S. has to lead in this effort because what we've learned a long time ago is that if the United States does not lead, nobody else will.” Obama’s message for President Hollande should be that the United States is now prepared to lead.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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