Saturday, October 04, 2014

Iraq, Syria & the Islamic State: Obama’s new & revised Queensbury Rules

For many years, a code has governed the manly art of boxing: the Queensbury Rules, endorsed by John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury. These rules set out what you can and cannot do to your opponent in the boxing ring, and are equated with a sense of fair play and sportsmanship.

The essence the Queensbury Rules is that you do not enter the ring to fight to win; you must win by the rules. The rules are very specific (no wrestling; if a man falls down, you wait for him to get up; no seconds in the ring to help one fighter; no spikes on your boots, and suchlike.

Today, we are faced with a superpower that under its latest president has issued a new set of Queensbury Rules, governing how states and others may box in the arena of international behaviour.

Obama’s revised Queensbury Rules are a far cry from the old Queensbury Rules, and anyone trying to understand what President Obama is trying to achieve with his undeclared war on the Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria should take a little time to understand what he has changed in the Rules.


First, we need to understand what is going on in those countries, and why they are so fraught with peril for any state trying to influence events there. Jeffrey Simpson’s take on what faces Western and other countries who are part of the US-led coalition waging war on the Islamic State is worth reading. Here’s the part that struck me:
Without any idea how, the bombing powers seek to assemble a “moderate” alternative to both the Islamic State and Mr. al-Bashar’s government. These so-called “moderates” were routed some time ago. Reassembling, equipping and motivating them such that they take on two enemies at once is the stuff of chalkboard illusion, since it ignores the cleavages between Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites that the civil war has exposed, among other realities.

The least that can be said for this mission is that everyone associated with it knows – or should know – that air power alone cannot win a victory, presuming the bombing powers can define “victory.” There will have to be political coalitions and new military forces on the ground that could somehow defeat the militants and the government while creating some semblance of an effective government for a devastated country.

If this task were not implausible enough, the same will be required in Iraq, a country well-known for its hideous violence, massive corruption and sectarian rivalries.

The rise of the Islamic State is a direct result of the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and its replacement with the Shia-dominated government of former president Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. al-Maliki, a middling functionary-turned-henchman, alienated and frightened his country’s Sunni minority, pushing many of them to support militant groups for self-defence.

The Iraqi army, recipient of so much American aid and training, turned tail when confronted by the Islamic State. This broken and demoralized institution is supposed to be the bombing powers’ best hope for “boots on the ground.” But a survey of Iraqi forces for the U.S. Joint Chiefs found only half the brigades to be “reputable partners.” According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, many brigades “were so tied to Shia abuses, corruption, ghost soldiers and incompetent officers that they needed either to be disbanded or purged and rebuilt from the ground up.” All this, and more, would take a minimum of three years.

Which is to say that no one in the bombing countries should assume anything but a campaign lasting many years, with very imprecise ambitions and shifting targets. The campaign would require war in two countries simultaneously, political reconciliation of a kind not seen in either, unprecedented co-operation from and among outside players (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), and an understanding of the societies of those countries that the bombing countries do not possess.

This is what Obama said about the new war against the self-styled Islamic State:

"We just have to push them back, and shrink their space, and go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fueling, and cut off their financing, and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters," Obama told CBS in the interview taped Friday.

He then went on to say that he hopes to encourage those in the region to take on the hard slogging of repairing the conditions that gave rise to the rapid advance of the Sunni-based Islamic State fighters:
Obama added that the U.S. must help "come up with political solutions in Iraq and Syria in particular, but in the Middle East generally, that arise in an accommodation between Sunni and Shia populations that right now are the biggest cause of conflict -- not just in the Middle East, but in the world."

Kroft said, "You mentioned James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. I mean, he didn't just say that we underestimated ISIL. He said we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi Army, to fight."

Obama replied, "That's true. That's absolutely true."

But Obama also said the responsibility falls to the United States to help Iraq fight ISIL because, with U.S.wealth and might, "we are the indispensable nation." When crises emerge around the world, Obama said, "they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us."

How does this fit into the Obama version of the Queensbury Rules (let’s call them the Obamabury Rules)?

Call me
Simply this: even though Obama recognizes that Washington is the number that is called when a crisis arises, he is not prepared to become the sheriff-for-hire, committing American troops to act as policemen and enter any such crisis.

Obama has a very precise, very cogent and very effective view of American policy for troublespots around the world.

His primary concern is the interests of America. If those interests are at risk, he will use the total power of America to protect them.

Take, for example, his clearly stated doctrine that you cannot harm America and Americans with impunity:

The U.S., he said, "will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger." But, he added, "when issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher." The U.S. would instead use "diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international  law...[and if necessary] multilateral military action" to address these crises.

He was very clear about what America would do to those who harm it or its citizens:

The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people.  We will be vigilant and we will be relentless.

That brings us to the Obamabury Rules:

This is the president who killed Osama bin Laden; who elevated the art of killing enemies or suspected enemies at long distance, using America’s massive advantage in long range weaponry, especially drones; who has clearly stated that no country may harbour those seeking to harm America without facing strikes against America’s enemies within that country’s borders.

He has clearly articulate the right of and willingness of America, under his administration, to disregard the boundaries of other states in order to seek out and kill its enemies, no matter where they might be found.

And he has used massive spying – on friendly states as well as hostile ones – to track down potential threats; and on drones to get in there and kill the targets identified.

Make no bones about it, America under Obama does not believe in the old Queensbury Rules if America or Americans are threatened. He used the word “ruthless” deliberately. He and his armed forces will be ruthless in killing enemies, no matter where they are. If they are stunned, he will pursue them further, until justice, as he sees it, has been done.

What does this mean for the Islamic State?

Obama’s policy is remarkably coherent, if you understand his view of America’s role. If that telephone call comes during a crisis, his administration will answer it, because nobody else can. But that does not mean that American troops are for hire by any oil-possessing state in any part of the world who is threatened. Those days are over. What it does mean is that Obama will take direct action if this is needed to stop an imminent threat to America, but will use selective weapons in its vast arsenal to diminish the ability of hostile forces in other cases, while arranging for regional responses.

Simply put, if you are under threat anywhere, the Obama administration demands that you and your friendly neighbours do the best you can to work with America to defend yourself. If you don’t pull your weight, don’t expect America do carry the load by itself.

Seen in this light, the absence of a clear policy to shore up an opposition to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is not a reason for inaction by those threatened, whether imminently or in time. The Obama response of killing and degrading as many Islamic State fighters is designed to buy time for someone else to step forward to reorganize the threatened areas.

If the state of Iraq, for instance, cannot reach an accord between the Shiite and Sunni and Kurd groups in that political space, then with time some other arrangement might present itself, including deeply federated structures, or the breakup of Iraq into three seperate and independent Kurd, Sunni and Shiite states.

Obama’s war on the Islamic State fighters buys time for others to work things out, including divorcing each other, if nothing else works.


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