Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for saying at a presidential debate last Saturday that the fight against ISIS “cannot be an American fight.” She basically stuck to her guns in a major speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations, but she did elaborate on her proposals for combating ISIS.
Much of what she had to say made sense and, in fact, echoed arguments already put forward by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, the two most serious candidates on foreign policy in the Republican field. (For Rubio’s ISIS policy, see this article. For Bush’s policy, see this speech. Full disclosure: I’ve advised both candidates.) She called for stepping up the bombing of ISIS (“a more effective coalition air campaign is necessary”), for giving “our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes,” and for mobilizing a new Sunni Awakening against ISIS with or without Baghdad’s help: “Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.”
Her model, she made clear, is the success of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq which she opposed at the time but now lauds: “In the first Sunni awakening in 2007, we were able to provide sufficient support and assurances to the Sunni tribes to persuade them to join us in rooting out al-Qaida.”
There are two ways to look at her position as a born-again supporter of the surge: either she was being cravenly political in opposing the surge in 2007 or she has simply changed her mind. I opt for the former explanation; no doubt her supporters would argue the latter. Whatever the case, her recognition that we need another Awakening is welcome — especially so because she made it clear that, unlike President Obama, she is willing to go around Baghdad if necessary.
When it came to Syria, she said that she recognizes that Bashar Assad has to go and that the U.S. can’t limit its campaign to targeting only ISIS: “So we need to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well… There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad’s rule.” She called for working “with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no-fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air” — steps that Obama has so far refused to take.
She sensibly poured cold war on attempts by the Obama administration to claim that Russia’s intervention can be a force for good: “President Putin is actually making things somewhat worse,” she said, again seeming to disavow one of her prior policies without explanation — in this case the “reset” with Russia.
She also implicitly broke with Obama’s strategy of trying to partner with Iran against ISIS: “We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges,” she said. “Regional politics are too interwoven. Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.” That’s exactly right — it’s an obvious point but one that Obama has failed to grasp.
There was only one weakness with Clinton’s speech, but it’s a big one and it undermines the effectiveness of everything else she said: She refused to support any serious deployment of U.S. forces to accomplish the objectives she lays out. The most she would say, in the case of Syria, was that “we should immediately deploy the special operations force President Obama has already authorized and be prepared to deploy more as more Syrians get into the fight.” That’s 50 Special Operations Forces that Obama has authorized — hardly a significant factor in such a major conflict.
And in the case of Iraq she wouldn’t go even that far. Instead of calling for a serious expansion of the grossly inadequate U.S. force of 3,000 troops, she emulated Obama’s strategy of attacking a straw man: “Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here. If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.”
If there is one thing we have learned over the past 15 years of war, it is that we need a serious force to support local allies. The Anbar Awakening was only made possible by the surge in U.S. forces which Clinton then opposed and now supports. In the case of Iraq and Syria, we will not be able to mobilize another such uprising without a bigger commitment on our part. In House testimony, retired General Jack Keane suggested sending at least 10,000 troops; other credible estimates run to the range of 20,000 to 30,000 troops, with two-thirds of them in Iraq and one-third in Syria safe zones.
One senses that, if Clinton had not paid such a high political price for her support of the Iraq War in 2003, she might be sympathetic to such arguments. But given her need to win the Democratic nomination, she ruled out the forces needed to implement an effective anti-ISIS strategy today.
Her proposals are much sounder than President Obama’s, at least in theory, but perhaps less honest. The president is not willing to commit U.S. forces, so he embraces a minimalist strategy against ISIS. Clinton is just as reluctant to commit U.S. forces while embracing a much more ambitious strategy. Something doesn’t add up here.
But most of her speech was substantive and a productive contribution to the effort to settle on an effective anti-ISIS strategy.