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Foreign Policy Experts Weigh In On U.S. Strategy Against The Islamic State


A U.S. official put the dilemma posed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State this way - we have never seen a terrorist organization with 22,000 foreign fighters from a hundred countries. That, the official noted, is double the number who went to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan over a 10-year period back in the 1980s. ISIS, or as the U.S. government calls it, ISIL, controls territory in two neighboring countries - Iraq and Syria. It is an extremist Sunni Muslim group in a region racked by sectarian tensions. Many Sunni Muslims are alarmed by the rise of Shiite groups across the region supported by Shiite Iran. For some, ISIS is an alternative. Is it time to rethink U.S. policy in the region? In a moment, we're going to hear from some people who think it is. First, what is U.S. policy? A cornerstone remains President Obama's assurance of what Washington will not do. This is from a speech in September.


BARACK OBAMA: I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.

SIEGEL: For more on U.S. policy with respect to ISIS, we turn now to White House spokesman, Josh Earnest.

Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that, like it or not, ISIS is going to be around for a few years in some parts of Iraq and or Syria?

EARNEST: Well, I think the president has made it clear that our efforts to try to counter ISIL are not a short-term proposition, that our strategy is predicated on supporting the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces in doing what we're not going to be in a position to do for them.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about this figure of three years that has been mentioned by the president as a rough time span. What do you say to people who say, you know, the U.S. won the war in the Pacific in about that much time, we've seen wars in the Middle East that Israel has won in weeks if not days. Why should it take three years to defeat this one group?

EARNEST: Well, because this is a very different kind of conflict. And in this instance, we're counting on the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces taking the fight on the ground against ISIL inside their own country. That's the responsibility of that government and of that people. And the United States and our coalition partners are all going to stand with the Iraqi central government as they take on this daunting task.

SIEGEL: And just to be clear, to those who say another 25 or 30,000 U.S. troops might indeed prove decisive in the conflict against ISIS, the Obama White House would say?

EARNEST: We are unwilling to dedicate that kind of blood and treasure to Iraq again. We saw what the result of that previous investment was. And that is not discounting the bravery and courage of our men and women in uniform - they had a substantial impact on the security situation there. But the Iraqi people, and because of the failed leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, was not able to capitalize on it.

So our strategy right now is predicated on building-up the capacity of those local forces and giving them another opportunity to control the security situation inside their own country and to do so with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. But we're not going to be able to do it for them.

SIEGEL: How would you sum-up U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria?

EARNEST: Well, I think the U.S. interest in that region of the world is to make sure that extremists like those in ISIL are not able to establish a safe haven there. The president is determined to make sure that we are building-up the capacity of local fighters, both in Syria and Iraq, to make sure that ISIL cannot establish a safe haven inside of Iraq and Syria that they can then use to carry out and encourage acts of violence throughout the region and across the world.

SIEGEL: White House Spokesman Josh Earnest, thanks a lot for talking with us.

EARNEST: Nice to visit with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations takes the opposite view of dispatching additional U.S. troops to the region. He says there should be more U.S. forces in Iraq and they should do more.

MAX BOOT: I think, clearly, we need to have looser rules of engagement that would allow our personnel to go out there with the Iraqis to buttress their professionalism and to call-in air strikes as necessary. To do that, I think we would need to have a larger force package, probably on the order of 10 to 20,000 personnel rather than at 3,000 that we have there now.

SIEGEL: Do you think there's a realistic approach, at least in Iraq, by which an Iraqi government can both push ISIS out but also draw Sunni Arabs in and be an attractive alternative to extreme Islamism in that region?

BOOT: Well, in fact, those two goals have to go together because unless the government can attract the support of Sunnis in Iraq, it will never defeat ISIS. It just won't happen. Relying on Shiite sectarian militias directed and armed by Iran is not the answer because the more that those sectarian forces are at the forefront of the anti-ISIS battle, the more that Sunnis will decide that ISIS is the preferable alternative.

SIEGEL: Max Boot, can you just describe, as you understand it, what is the U.S. interest in that part of the world? That is, why are Americans even discussing how many troops we should be sending back into Iraq or whom we should be supporting in the region? What's in it for us?

BOOT: I mean, we saw what would happen on - what in fact happened in 2001, when extremists took over in Afghanistan and from there we saw a plot being directed that wound-up in the most costly attack ever on American soil. And that's from a country - Afghanistan - which is relatively inconsequential compared to a country like Iraq, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.

SIEGEL: Oil and terrorism is what you're saying.

BOOT: A combination of oil and terrorism, it's a deadly brew. And then you throw in the possibility of weapons of mass destruction, and it's a truly toxic mix that we ought to be very concerned about.

SIEGEL: Max Boot, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BOOT: Thanks for having me on.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Given the successes of ISIS and the general mess in the region, it's definitely high time for a rethink.

SIEGEL: Walter Russell Mead is a professor of foreign policy at Bard College and a distinguished scholar at the Hudson Institute. A lot of what's happening in the region and driving Sunni Muslims to ISIS, he says, is the U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran.

MEAD: Well, I think they have a good idea, which is that trying to change the U.S.-Iranian relationship could mean a more stable Middle East. But the way they've gone about it has actually meant that that policy has helped to destabilize the Middle East. That in order to reassure the Sunnis and others that the U.S. isn't tilting toward Iran in a way that sets up Iran as a kind of hegemonic regional power, the U.S. needs to do a lot more to balance Iranian influence around the region. And I think probably Syria is the centerpiece for that effort.

SIEGEL: How could the U.S. allay those Sunni Arab fears of a resurgent Iran in Syria?

MEAD: Well, you look at what we're doing now, is in Ramadi, we're working with Shia Iraqi forces to defeat ISIS, and in Syria, we are bombing ISIS, but rather conspicuously not bombing the Assad forces, which are supported by Iran. So to a lot of Sunni observers in a region, it looks like a very, very heavy-handed intervention for the Shia against the Sunni. I think what we probably need to do is make the removal of Assad the first priority in Syria, and that creates a climate in which we and others will be able to deal with ISIS.

SIEGEL: It wouldn't create a vacuum that ISIS could walk right into in Syria and take over?

MEAD: Well, in a sense, the status quo of a civil war in Syria has created the vacuum into which ISIS has stepped, so we're already there. But I think as long as the Sunni world thinks that we're actually trying to prop-up Assad and support Iran, then what we're going to see is a continuing radicalization not only of people on the streets - some sort of crazy teenagers - but of actually more serious, and in some cases policymaking officials, in government.

SIEGEL: But if you're right, is there any way that the U.S. and other world powers can agree to a nuclear deal with Iran? Lift some sanctions and not aggravate the very fears that the Sunnis have by doing that?

MEAD: Well, I think the fact that we may be about to lift the sanctions and give Iran something like 50 to $150 billion is part of why the Sunni world is so terrified. So I think you have to balance the steps toward Iran with very, very serious efforts to limit Iranian influence in the region.

SIEGEL: Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute and Bard College, thanks for talking with us today.

MEAD: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Now Brian Fishman, who's a counterterrorism research fellow at New America, the Washington-based think tank. He joins us from the studios of Stanford University.

Brian Fishman, is containment living with a less powerful but still-present ISIS? Is that a workable strategy for the U.S.?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, not over the long run. Over the long run, ISIS needs to be defeated. I think the challenge is that in the near term, we don't have a lot of good options for rolling the organization back. And that's why I think we really need to be thinking about a long term strategy, not on the period of three years like the administration has discussed, but we're talking about a decade-long effort here. And I think that kind of time frame needs to be squarely in the minds of policymakers and the American people as we think about what's going to be required.

SIEGEL: But imagine for a moment an Iraq that, not just in reality, but in legal fact, breaks apart. Kurdistan is an independent Kurdish country. The Shiite south and east of Iraq is a state closely aligned to Iran. And Anbar Province and the areas that are currently being contested become part of a new Syria where Sunni Muslims feel they're in a comfortable majority. A more stable Middle East than what we have now?

FISHMAN: Not in the short term, but maybe in the long term. And so I think we have this choice in front of us. Are we willing to accept the risks in the short run of redefining these lines in the hopes - potentially in the vain hopes - that we can define more stable lines in the future? Or are we going to try to defend the lines that are there now, which we know are unstable? And it's a sort of devil you know or devil, you know, don't know because right now, I don't think - I think the core problem we have is we don't know what we're fighting for. We don't know what the policy is that we're fighting for. We know that we need to go after ISIS. We know we want to defeat them. But what is it that comes after that? What does Syria look like after that? And that to me is still unclear.

SIEGEL: Brian Fishman of New America, thanks for talking with us.

FISHMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We also heard from Walter Russell Mead of Bard College and the Hudson Institute, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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