If there were ever an issue that required politics to stop at the water’s edge, it’s the fight against ISIS.
But no one – not the White House, not GOP leaders, certainly not Congress – has come up with a coherent plan to curb the group in the long run.
In a sane government, Congress would debate President Obama’s goals and strategy. The president has said he wanted Congress to authorize his anti-ISIS military campaign once midterm elections were over. A serious congressional debate would press Obama’s national security team to clarify his murky policy and would probe its loopholes. The goal would be to make the country safer, not to rack up political points with an eye to elections in 2016.
Obviously, this is too much to hope for – legislators have shown little appetite for such a challenge. But, as a columnist, I’m free to dream, so here’s how my imaginary hearings would proceed.
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First, legislators would admit that the blame for the rise of ISIS is shared equally by Republicans and Democrats. I’ve been critical of Obama’s failure to help moderate Syrian rebel groups two years ago. But no one should forget that George W. Bush’s Iraq War triggered the Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggles that gave birth to ISIS, and guaranteed that Shiite Iran would become Iraq’s most influential ally.
Second, legislators from both parties would seek to clarify the U.S. goals in Syria and Iraq. Obama now says his goals are to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, while former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, bearing the Republican torch, uses the more muscular phrase “destroy and defeat.”
Yet nearly all legislators – whether they are for or against using U.S. troops or in the middle – agree that the bulk of the anti-ISIS fighting must be done by locals. That’s a big problem and doesn’t promise the defeat of ISIS in the foreseeable future.
Which leads to the third point: the need to examine who can fight ISIS. The hottest issue: whether the United States will return “ground troops” to Iraq, with some Republicans urging this on and many Democrats aghast.
Obama is opposed (along with the bulk of the U.S. public) and says the fighting should be done by Iraqi forces and moderate Syrian rebels. But what exactly are U.S. “ground troops”? There are already 3,000 new U.S. “advisers” in Iraq. The big question is whether some U.S. special forces or intelligence officials should be embedded with forward Kurdish or Iraqi units, to help call in airstrikes and boost local fighters.
Fourth, a congressional debate could provide a reality check on which Arabs can or will fight ISIS. On the Iraq side, why should we expect better results from retraining the Iraqi army than we got after 10 years of trying? And are our hopes realistic that Iraqi Sunni tribes will rise up against ISIS?
Fifth, is it too late to rely on moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, after letting the Assad regime decimate them over the past three years? Should we focus our help on the Kurds? Hearings could examine.
Sixth, is Iran a potential ally against ISIS or part of the problem? Obama seems to think the former, but Iran firmly backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, and still promotes a Shiite sectarian agenda in Iraq.
Clearly, new ideas on fighting ISIS are needed, beyond Obama’s plans, but they can’t emerge in the take-no-prisoners atmosphere of Washington.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.