You might be surprised to learn that the Islamic State has reportedly lost almost 10 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria over the course of 2015. This, supporters of this administration writing in liberal blogs contend, suggests that ISIS is “losing the war.” When the United States has spent billions of dollars, conducted over 5,000 airstrikes, and killed more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, and yet American intelligence agencies conclude that the group is no weaker than it was when the campaign began nearly one year ago, it is perhaps forgivable that Barack Obama’s cheering section is latching onto even the most token indications of progress.
The fight against ISIS has sprawled since the president first reluctantly ordered airstrikes on targets in Iraq in August of last year. Today, hundreds of sorties have been flown but there is not much to show for that effort. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent training fewer than 60 indigenous Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias of suspect loyalty have enjoyed only modest successes in Iraq. Some Kurdish forces, many of whom constitute America’s most effective and capable anti-ISIS partners, are now the targets of bombing raids by Washington’s Turkish allies. “U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate,” the Associated Press reported last week. The group now has affiliates across North Africa, the Middle East, Central, South, and Southeast Asia.
Western lethargy has allowed a ragtag militia to evolve into a semi-functional anti-state; an aspiring social entity that seeks to overthrow the very concept of nationhood that has served as the bedrock of Western civilization for over 350 years.
Barack Obama’s refusal to comprehensively address this threat and his apparent desire to contain it only just long enough to bequeath it to his successor is unconscionable, but such are the wages of appeasement. The target of Obama’s attempt at mollification is not some irredentist foreign dictator, but a bipartisan, war-weary constituency within the United States. It will fall upon the next president to state plainly why it is imperative that the United States lead the effort to neutralize ISIS. Based on his responses to a line of questions on the Islamic State at a candidates’ forum in New Hampshire on Monday, it’s not at all clear that Jeb Bush is the man for that job.
“We have a security threat which is real,” he said of ISIS, “and we need to do what we should be doing, which is a strategy to take them out.”
“What would your plan be to defeat them?” Bush was asked by moderator Jack Heath. And if American military commanders recommended the use of ground and Special Forces in Syria to substantially reduce ISIS’s operational capabilities, the moderator added, would Bush order their deployment. The candidate’s response was not especially inspiring.
“I would take the advice of the military very seriously,” Bush replied, appearing visibly thrown by the question. “We need a strategy first.”
“Yeah, I think we need Special Forces,” the former Florida governor reluctantly admitted. “The idea of boots on the ground, I’m not sure that’s necessary. But, Special Forces, embedding our troops and our trainers in the — with the Syrian Free Army, training them at a much faster rate. We’ve spent a half a billion dollars to have 60 people ready to go. I mean, this is absurd.”
“If this is a serious effort, then we need to treat it seriously,” Bush concluded. Fair enough, but contending that the deployment of Special Forces does not constitute “boots on the ground” does not reflect a desire to treat both the ISIS threat and the American voter seriously.
For all the talk from the Republican Party’s presidential candidates about the need to speak honestly about the nation’s problems, few seem willing to tell the GOP’s base of primary voters what they don’t want to hear. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, has predicated his campaign on taking tough stands and communicating unpleasant realities to voters, but his signature truth – the immediate need for substantial reforms to the three major entitlement programs – is a truth that GOP voters already accept. A hard truth that both Republicans and the general electorate have been unwilling to acknowledge is that ISIS cannot be substantially rolled back, much less destroyed, without Western troops participating in both training and combat operations. There was, however, one figure on the debate stage willing to level with the Republican voters in the audience.
“You’re going to need more troops in Iraq,” Senator Lindsey Graham conceded with a tone that conveyed the appropriate sorrow over the seven years of missteps that led to that lamentable condition. “I’m optimistic, but it will not be easy.”
“You’re going to have to get from 3,500 to at least 10,000 to get Iraq in a good spot, but if you don’t deal with Syria we’re going to get hit here,” he continued. “There is no ground component in Syria.”
Graham’s courage is buttressed by the fact that he has little or nothing to lose in terms of support in the polls by being so brutally honest. After all, you can’t lose what you don’t have. Bush remains a frontrunner in the race for his party’s nomination, and he may simply have just been over cautious in his response. But Bush’s obvious trepidation opens another avenue of concern. Is it possible that the candidate and his advisors are so profoundly afraid of his association with his brother’s conduct of America’s post-9/11 military interventions that they would allow Bush to decline to seek a clear mandate from the voting public for intervention against ISIS?
The next president cannot abide the Islamic State’s existence. It is a brutal totalitarian cult in which children are turned into executioners, the practice of slavery is resurrected, and shared human heritage is systematically destroyed. If the eventual Republican nominee cares more for his political prospects than campaigning on the need to comprehensively address ISIS, he or she would be unworthy of the presidency.
Hopefully, Jeb Bush will clarify his position on what he believes the West, and the United States in particular, must do in order to destroy the Islamic State. If he does not, it would be clear that domestic political calculations are, in his mind, more important than moral clarity and forthrightness about what will be required in order to eliminate this abomination. America should not be subjected to another president who takes into account the political costs associated with safeguarding American interests and prioritizing national security. That’s how we got here in the first place.