Obama’s half measures against ISIL have left a dangerous opening for Trump.
MAR 22, 2016
Assuming that the attacks in Brussels were the work of ISIL, they would represent the group’s deadliest strike abroad since the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris which left 130 dead. That attack was preceded by the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian jetliner in Egypt, which killed 224 people, and followed by the Dec. 2 shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14.
The ISIL threat needs to be met with the serious response it deserves — but without falling prey to the anti-Muslim hysteria that Donald Trump peddles. Unfortunately, the desultory war that President Obama is waging against ISIL is creating an opening for demagogues like Trump who offer simplistic nostrums that will only hurt our security.
Since the U.S. began bombing ISIL in August 2014, the Islamic State has lost some ground — by one count 22% of the territory it controlled at its height. But ISIL remains entrenched in its major strongholds, Raqqa and Mosul, and it has spread abroad. A new ISIL “province” in Sirte, Libya, has attracted more than 5,000 fighters.
Obama has not been more successful in countering ISIL for two reasons. First, he has not put together a political strategy that would draw Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis away from a group that they see as their defender against the threat of Iranian-backed Shiite death squads. Indeed, by making a nuclear deal that enriches Iran, Obama has given Sunnis the impression that the U.S. is now their enemy.
Second, Obama has not put together a military strategy to roll back ISIL. While he has recently (and belatedly) committed the Joint Special Operations Command to the battle, he has still limited the U.S. troop presence to fewer than 5,000 troops in Iraq, and imposed crippling restrictions on their operations.
The U.S. has launched 8,386 air strikes against ISIL. That’s an impressive total, but it only works out to 14.6 strikes a day. That is far below the average of previous chaotic, non-traditional conflicts. In the 1999 Kosovo War, the U.S. launched 138 strike sorties a day; in the 2001 Afghanistan War, 86 a day. Little wonder that these other foes were routed relatively quickly and ISIL remains very much intact.
But if Obama has shown insufficient commitment to the war effort — he has been more concerned with staying out of a Middle East “quagmire” than with defeating ISIL — Trump does not offer a viable alternative. When asked for his plan to defeat ISIL, the Republican front-runner blusters and contradicts himself. At a Republican debate on March 10, he said “We have no choice” but to “listen to the generals” and send “20,000 to 30,000” troops to “knock them out fast.” Fast forward to March 21. In a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump backed off, saying, “I would find it very, very hard to send that many troops to take care of it.”
Yet at the same time Trump stuck to his pledge to steal Iraq’s oil — a violation of international law comparable to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Asked if he would send troops to seize Iraqi oil fields, Trump said: “Yeah, I would defend the areas with the oil.”
It is hard to imagine anything calculated to inflame Muslim opinion more than having America seize the oil from a Muslim country — and it’s hard to imagine why we would bother when oil prices are at historically low levels and we are almost entirely self-sufficient in oil. The only thing that is likely to alienate Muslims more than that are Trump’s pledges to bar all Muslims from entering the United States and his claim that “Islam hates us” — which implies that “we” should hate Islam back.
In fact, only a tiny percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is waging war on us. To defeat those Islamic extremists, we will need the cooperation of moderate Muslim states and of the Muslims who live in the West.
A large part of the reason why European states such as Belgium and France have such major terrorist problems is because they have done such a poor job of assimilating Muslim immigrants. The United States has less of a problem in no small part because we have done a better job of assimilation. Trump’s crude attacks on Muslims risk undoing all of that progress. Trump could not possibly do more damage to our security if he were an actual ISIL agent.