You're Gonna' Need a Bigger Foreign Policy

F-18 Hornets on a carrier

F/A-18 fighter jets preparing to launch from the USS George HW Bush
in the Arabian Gulf on Monday; photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.

You're Gonna' Need a Bigger Foreign Policy
| published August 27, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The foreign policy situation now facing the White House is not funny, but humor sometimes helps to clarify and analogize.

In the famous 1975 Stephen Spielberg movie Jaws, the local cop, played by Roy Scheider, utters what is arguably one of the most famous movie lines in Hollywood history. Aboard a small fishing boat, and after seeing for the very first time the true size, power and intensity of their adversary—a 25-foot, three-ton great white shark whose menacing bite seizes the bait only inches from Scheider’s hands—he backs slowly across the boat and into the cabin. Without turning, he softly informs the boat’s captain, played by Robert Shaw, you’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.

Indeed. There are times when the United States needs a bigger foreign policy. Scheider’s famous line was improvised, and its understated, nervous energy sealed the scene’s effectiveness. But foreign policy is not a business best managed by improvisation.

Though the rapid deterioration of Iraq had been predicted not long after it was clear that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had no genuine intention of opening up his government to Sunnis, Kurds, or to other Iraqi minorities, the rapid escalations inside the Ukraine came as an unwelcome surprise to U.S. President Barack Obama, as did Vladimir Putin’s now menacing attitude about his neighbor to the west.

Likewise, a surge of child immigration along the border between Texas and Mexico challenged security and stability of entire communities, as thousands upon thousands of children and teens crossed into the U.S. to escape intolerable violence in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. The crisis came as a shock to the White House, where it had been safely assumed that illegal immigration had become yesterday’s problem.

A horrific war between Hamas (in Gaza) and Israel has left more than 2150 people dead—the vast majority of them Palestinian civilians. At first, the White House seemed shocked by the violence, unable to craft a swift or coherent policy response. As the crisis quickly escalated, it became clear that the already frayed relations between Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu would suffer even more as neither John Kerry—nor anyone else, for that matter—seemed to offer a solution to the terrible spiral of rockets and missiles.

Likewise, new tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea, and along the international waters between the Philippines and Asia, have challenged the assumption that China has moderated its methods and tamped down its ambitions. Not only have our Cold War adversaries Russia and China decided to flex their muscles in provocative and dangerous ways, new hotspots have developed with breathtaking speed, in some cases challenging even our most cherished post-911 assumptions.

Such is the case with ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a terrorist group now being fully redefined by U.S. President Barack Obama, the State Department, and the Pentagon as a fully-operating, well-funded army. No longer the band of "misfits" and loosely-armed militants we were exposed to less than seven months ago (many in the White House had never even heard the acronym ISIS until late May and early June), ISIS is now engaged in a proactive military sweep across the wider Middle East.

The sudden explosion of ISIS momentum truly took the administration by surprise. ISIS, which formed out of the lawlessness and chaos of northern Syria, and drawing in elements of al Qaeda and other radical groups, sprang across the porous border between Syria and Iraq, advancing rapidly and capturing Iraqi cities and towns. Along its path it brought terror and despair: summary executions, beheadings, mass shootings, rape, torture, and the immediate imposition of extremist interpretations of Islamic Law.  Shopkeepers and merchants were extorted, women told to stay indoors, violators threatened with amputation and death.  The Iraqi army collapsed, abandoning a billion dollars’ worth of American-made hardware: tanks, armored SUVs, Jeeps, personnel carriers, armed GMC trucks, guns, even uniforms. ISIS captured weapons caches, oil fields, oil refineries, communications assets, and even looted banks. In late July, ISIS forces seized control of the dam at Mosul (though weeks later, after a brutal fight between ISIS and a mix of Kurdish forces and Iraqi soldiers, the dam was retaken).

This past weekend, ISIS fighters seized the Taqaba air force base in the Raqqa province in northern Syria. And though the government of Bashir al-Assad in Damascus says that the air force had moved all its planes away from the air base, the loss of such a key military asset after heavy fighting is considered another example of the deeper, more serious threat of ISIS—an organization characterized by President Obama only months ago as a “junior varsity team.” In the process, ISIS also captured a dozen Russian-made tanks and two dozen armored personnel carriers once part of the Syrian army’s assets.

ISIS has battled other rebel groups in Syria for control of the Islamist movement, gaining strength and consolidating its dominance over other, more moderate anti-Assad rebel groups. ISIS has also captured territory as far north as Syria’s long border with Turkey, and has now swept across hundreds of miles of Iraq, seizing control of the border checkpoints and military outposts on the frontier with Jordan, pushing south to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and battling north and eastward into Kurdish areas. ISIS pushed so swiftly and so completely across much of Iraq that its advance has brought the stability and cohesion of Iraq into question, threatening to fragment the country and rendering the gains of a costly and deadly war, in which thousands of Americans died, meaningless in the pages of history.

Then, a week ago, the world was stunned to watch a video which showed the gruesome beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. The voice of the masked militant spoke with a distinctly British accent, and authorities in the U.K. and the U.S. say that that voice may belong to a British rapper and musician who left England last year to join with radical fighters in Syria. (CNN has reported that the man who spoke in the video and the man who appears to have carried out the execution may be different people, separated by a subtle edit point in the video; the man whose voice we hear speaks in what is known as multicultural London English, a melting pot accent unique to certain areas of London.)  Now, intelligence sources in Britain, the U.S. and other countries say that there are hundreds of non-Arabs who have joined ISIS. The FBI says that at least 100 U.S. citizens are fighting with various militant groups in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and another 100 militant fighters may be British citizens. At least 24 Americans are known to be fighting inside ISIS units.

Among those drawn into this world of warriors and radical Islam was Douglas McArthur McCain, an American from Minnesota, killed last week in a firefight in an ISIS held area of Syria. Reuters and CNN have also reported that another American (his identity has not been released) was killed in the heavy fighting between ISIS and Syrian troops at the Taqaba air force base. Even more troublesome than the evaporating border between Syria and Iraq: the apparently porous Syrian-Turkish border—hundreds of miles of frontier marked only by a cheap wire cattle fence or chain link fence. Reporters for NBC and the BBC, there to report the huge refugee population crossing from war-torn Syria into Turkey, have also shown a number of Europeans—carrying little more than backpacks, brand new copies of the Koran, and bottled water—moving in small groups south, passing through the same gaps in the fences, entering Syria or Iraq from the north. When interviewed, these soon-to-be-ex-patriots answer with apparent honesty: they are going to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS. Their accents range from British to French, from Dutch to Danish.

American and British intelligence officials now fear that the number of U.S. and European citizens willing to join the radical Islamist and terrorist movements may sharply increase during the next six to 12 months. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel no longer minces his words: no longer content to operate in small bands and small cells, ISIS represents a new and more transcendent threat to Americans and Europeans abroad. Indeed, some terrorism analysts have gone as far as to suggest it is only a matter of time before radicalized citizens now training and fighting in Syria and Iraq return home to participate in homegrown military actions in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries.

Like previous ISIS victories, its recent conquest of the airbase in northeastern Syria was followed by the public execution of Syrian soldiers and other captured personnel. More than 500 died in the fighting near Raqqa over the weekend—and the majority of those killed were Syrian soldiers (initial reports from Syria said that of the 500 killed, only 170 were members of the Syrian Army or Air Force; but later reports have reversed those numbers). Another 20 soldiers and officers may have been executed for the cameras; images and videos posted on social media and on websites by ISIS show shootings and beheadings of captured soldiers and air base personnel, and some of those executed appear to be officers.

This crisis has quickly driven the White House and the Pentagon into a rapid shifting of gears and policy toward the central Middle East. ISIS has now clearly become a serious threat not only to Iraq and the United States' end-game of stability and cohesion (in a land where thousands of U.S. soldiers died), but also to the wider Middle East. ISIS makes no secret of its intention to take its war in nearly all directions, and its seizures of border checkpoints and military outposts along borders with Jordan and Turkey, and its deep push across Iraq toward the frontier with Saudi Arabia indicate the militants have no inhibitions about political borders. If ISIS is able to spread its outreach and strength into northern Lebanon, its successful pattern of co-option and subjugation of rival groups means that heavily-armed ISIS units will be within striking distance of northern Israel.  If Syria collapses completely, ISIS will have direct access to the Golan Heights and the very border with Israel. 

Both the White House and the Pentagon have quickly expanded the air missions over northern Iraq—at first meant to halt further advances into southern Iraq, as well as offer cover and protection for the imperiled Yezidis near Mount Sinjar—to include specific air strikes on ISIS positions in northern Syria. The crisis has also forced U.S. policy into a convoluted and contorted state of affairs: Syria’s Assad, once an enemy of humanity for his civil war atrocities, is now a quasi-friend, if for no other reason than he and the U.S. share an equal desire to rid the region of the ISIS movement. A secret U.S. helicopter effort launched six weeks ago to rescue James Foley and others went unanswered by Damascus, through clearly Syrian radar watched the unsuccessful mission unfold on their screens. (One explanation is that the helicopters used in that operation flew below radar, or were perhaps equipped with stealth technology).  Officially, Assad says he does not approve of unlimited access to Syrian airspace by U.S. drones or U.S. fighters, but he has also been clear that he will cooperate with any and all international efforts to combat ISIS and other radical terror movements.

Thursday Review spoke to a source at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa (the source requested that he not be identified) who said that U.S. military policy has faced a radical change of heart, driven entirely by the swift events of the last six months: Ukraine, Russia, China, Gaza, but most importantly ISIS and the very real possibility of the collapse of Iraq.

Force majeur,” the contact told us, “all previous bets and arrangements are off, and all previously stated alliances are subject to change without notice. It was all in there, in the fine print. We just thought we were out of Iraq. We just thought Putin was our friend. In January we hated Assad, now he may be our best friend. That’s why Kirby [Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press liaison] had to do so much shuckin’ and jivin’ at the press conference.”

The source was referring to Tuesday’s meeting between Kirby and reporters at the Pentagon, in which Kirby faced uncomfortable questions about U.S. policy toward China, toward Syria and Bashir al Assad, and in Iraq, where U.S. forces now number roughly 1000 “advisors.” Some military analysts feel certain that the number of Americans in Baghdad and Iraq will continue to grow as pressure forms to launch more air missions and on-the-ground priorities require more U.S. assistance.  At that press conference, Kirby was clearly forced to offer convoluted explanations for rapidly shifting priorities and contorted rationales.  Among other things, Kirby had to square the circle, as it were: explaining why we still have a good military relationship with Beijing despite aggressive and provocative actions by Chinese air force pilots, and squirming noticeably when asked why air-strikes in Syria were off-limits six months ago when we were verbally berating Assad, but now the exact type of strikes may be used to defend Assad's army against further ISIS advances.  

For the much-maligned neo-con school of thinkers, this was all a predictable outcome of a reactive—rather than proactive—foreign policy stance, and a military whose role is so reigned-in that the White House spends more time explaining what the U.S. will not do, rather than an administration which leaves overtly muscular options on the table. U.S. reluctance to intervene, in any way, in Syria, opened the floodgate to lawlessness and terror.  It’s not just neocons who say this. As even many moderate and liberal foreign policy experts and military analysts have pointed out for months, the Obama administration’s wait-and-see, watch-and-wait policy no longer applies in a world in which radical movements now have access to so many weapons, so much social media, so much cash, and so many tools to use to attract budding jihadists.

ISIS has a ready supply of cash and other liquid forms of funding which have changed the template. ISIS has the unique advantage of being a terrorist organization now in control of not only oil fields, but also oil distribution. It has raided and looted banks in a dozen cities in Iraq, clearing out cash and gold. It has used kidnapping and extortion to its advantage across a wide range of the area it controls. And no longer dependent entirely on smuggling its weapons and ammunition into its areas of influence, its overstock of captured U.S., Iraqi, Syrian, and Russian weaponry means that it can engage in the sale of weapons to aligned radical groups in Lebanon and Jordan.

As reported recently in Bloomberg and on other news sources, ISIS may be benefitting from a revenue stream exceeding $2 million every day. Al Qaeda never once had access to that much cash flow, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have traditionally been funded by wealthy patrons or rogue state sponsors such as Libya and Iran. And because ISIS does not engage in traditional banking, the militant group cannot be squeezed by the usual short-list of sanctions designed to freeze assets or capture electronic transactions. ISIS has an abundant supply of oil which can be sold for cash—in many cases directly to the same distributors who bought it from Iraqi middle-men and Iraqi suppliers. And its oil can be sold at a substantial and obvious discount, a fact that will surely inspire other less-scrupulous buyers to do business with ISIS.

One of the most sobering statistics about ISIS: it now controls the output of a dozen major oil fields, and the combined total output of those fields now reaches about 40 thousand barrels per day.  At full capacity, those same fields will yield 80 thousand barrels a day, but because of structural damage or limitations to tools and support staff, ISIS is operating these sites at about half strength.  ISIS cash can buy additional tech support and staff, and can leverage repairs, meaning the output will soon reach its peak.

All of this also means that ISIS is not only self-sustaining in terms of cash-flow, but also self-sufficient on the ground. That oil, once refined, can be used to power its now-formidable fleet of tanks, mobile guns, Jeeps, weaponized SUVs, and personnel carriers. And its rapid acquisition of heavy weapons left in the wake of a retreating Iraqi army have given it a technological strength and muscle unprecedented among post-911 terrorist groups.

In this sense, the terrorist movement is no longer an asymmetrical threat.  ISIS is a fully-functioning army, as well-funded as that of any standing army among at least 100 countries.

And in the increasingly complicated cultural puzzle that is the wider Middle East, and U.S. and its allies can no longer depend entirely on the moderate states for reliable expressions of stability. The American journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released last week in part because of intervention by Qatar (and possibly Saudi Arabia). But the evidence is strong that certain rogue elements in those same countries have provided money directly to ISIS. Since donors and receivers use circuitous channels to funnel the money, the host nations have complete deniability, and traditional forms of tracking by the FBI or the U.S. Treasury Department may prove useless. Other moderate states suspected of harboring wealthy patrons of ISIS include Turkey, Jordan, UAE and Kuwait. All of these countries have reason to fear ISIS, and though all have denied publicly that cash has flowed from within their borders into militant hands, the FBI and the U.S. Treasury Department each have substantial evidence to the contrary: that wealthy individuals in the moderate states have been increasing their charitable role in ISIS.

Between the outside sources of cash, and the newly-seized forms of self-funding, ISIS has proven to be largely outside the template of U.S. military and intelligence planning or thinking.

As for Iraq’s fragmentation, conservatives and liberals alike have raised concerns for two years that Nouri al Maliki’s narrow, sectarian style of governance would lead to deeper fractures and potential violence. Also of concern for more than three years: Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war, which—escalating as it did without a coherent U.S. policy at the start, or the end, of the Arab Spring—fostered an environment ripe for the emergence of a more terrifying form of extremism.  Similar inaction and reticence by the White House led to uneven and disappointing outcomes for much of the Arab Spring, and a shocking lack of proactive thinking by U.S. policymakers and State Department officials could be said to be directly responsible for the disaster of Benghazi.

Clearly the costs of U.S. intervention in two post-911 wars simultaneously produced overreach and intolerable bloodshed in the aught years. But, conversely, the cost of a foreign policy rooted in a wait-and-see approach—forged by a fear that any direct action will constitute a return to the bad old days of neocon unilateralism—has guided President Obama down the path of over-cautiousness and outright risk-aversion. For Putin’s Russia—now acting upon its deep desire to exert its old school paternalism over parts of Eastern Europe—and for China, a communist power unafraid of flexing its muscle, even in sometimes provocative ways, six years of wallflower foreign policy by the United States has liberated them from the confines of a kinder-gentler form of engagement.

No matter how severe the economic sanctions (and Putin may yet yield to those market pressures), Moscow does not fear U.S. military might. And neither Netanyahu nor Hamas, neither the Palestinian authorities nor the Egyptians, have much use for U.S. advice or pleading.

Likewise, the White House and the Pentagon have been slow to arrive to the conclusion that ISIS poses a genuine threat, either to the long-term survival of Iraq as a nation—one in which thousands of Americans gave the ultimate sacrifice—or to the stability of the Middle East, where Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia stand to lose everything if ISIS prevails. The question becomes: can the Obama administration adopt a bigger, stronger, forward-looking policy before ISIS becomes a direct threat to the United States?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will James Foley’s Death Raise the Stakes in Iraq?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 20, 2014.

Iraq Airstrikes Will Continue; Maliki Steps Aside; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 15, 2014.