Obama Does ‘Stupid Stuff’ in ISIS War

President Obama famously counseled his foreign policy team “don’t do stupid stuff,” but he is now violating his own principle by plunging into an incoherent war policy in Iraq and Syria rather than challenging the stupid “group think” of Official Washington, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett explain.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

While President Barack Obama continues, at least for now, to resist redeploying large numbers of U.S. soldiers to fight the Islamic State on the ground, the military components of the anti-Islamic State strategy he has laid out effectively recommit the United States to its post-9/11 template for never-ending war in the Middle East.

In the end, such an approach can only compound the damage that has already been done to America’s severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East by its previous post-9/11 military misadventures.

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Thirteen years after the fact, most of America’s political and policy elites have yet to grasp the strategic logic that motivated the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Certainly, al-Qa’ida was not averse to damaging America’s economy and punishing its people. But Osama bin Laden knew that effects of this sort would be finite, and thus of limited strategic value; he had no illusions about destroying “the American way of life.”

The real objective of the 9/11 attacks was to prompt American overreaction: to goad Washington into launching prolonged military campaigns against Muslim lands. These campaigns would galvanize popular sentiment across the Muslim world against the United States, mobilize Middle Eastern publics against regional governments (like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia) that cooperate politically and militarily with it, and rally them in favor of jihadi fighters who resist American domination.

Looking ahead, the al-Qa’ida leader anticipated that local backlash against U.S. overreaction to a terrorist provocation would ultimately undermine the regional foundations of America’s ability to project massive amounts of military force into the Middle East, compelling it to disengage from the region and go home.

Viewed through this frame, the United States fell for bin Laden’s plan with appalling alacrity. America’s post-9/11 invasions cum campaigns of coercive regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have been strategic failures, leaving the United States weaker, in terms of its ability to achieve its stated goals in the Middle East, its economic position and its standing as a global superpower, than before.

And the most important factor ensuring the failure of these campaigns was that they eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people living there.  As a result, America’s self-declared “war on terror” has made the threat to U.S. interests from violent jihadi extremists vastly more broad-based, complicated and dangerous than it was 13 years ago.

Doing the Same Thing  

Now, in response to the Islamic State’s dramatic rise, the Obama administration wants to go down the same, well-worn and colossally self-damaging path of strategic overreactions. The administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is a veritable case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

For there is absolutely no rational basis on which to think that, this time, the United States will get a different, presumably better, result. This makes Obama’s military campaign against the Islamic State exactly the sort of “dumb war” that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he promised American voters he would oppose.

President Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic, but the movement starts its fight against the United States with an extraordinary level of support from Sunni Muslim publics. In July 2014, that is, before the United States began its current air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq, a poll by the (Saudi-owned) pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat showed that 92 percent of Saudis believe that the group “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”

In Jordan and Kuwait, Facebook posts by the Islamic State draw tens of thousands of likes in just a few hours; Twitter feeds and other social media suggest that there is a considerable reservoir of popular support for the movement among Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Arab populations.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan have generated large contingents of young men who have left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State, which draws holy warriors from across the Sunni world.

Under these conditions, U.S. military action against the Islamic State will once again play into the jihadi grand strategy: to draw “crusaders” (the West, embodied in the United States) and “infidels” (Shi’a) into battle against Sunni holy warriors, thereby rallying support for them across the Sunni world.

Far from deterring Islamic State provocations, U.S. airstrikes will actually incentivize it to do more. The movement did not execute any of the American journalists it has been holding hostage (for well over a year in some cases) until after the United States started bombing it in August.

That month, as an Islamic State fighter beheaded journalist James Foley for what (thanks to an initial posting on YouTube) turned out to be a worldwide audience, the group warned that, if U.S. military forces continued bombing, it would execute another prisoner, Steven Sotloff. Of course, the bombing continued; at the beginning of September, as it had promised, the Islamic State beheaded Sotloff for another worldwide video audience.

These gruesome executions have sparked enough elite outcry and sufficient turnaround in American public opinion to prompt the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military action against the Islamic State. But one utterly predictable consequence of not just escalating the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq but expanding it into Syria will be more provocations like the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff.

In effect, the Islamic State is continuing the strategy pioneered by bin Laden 13 years ago, daring Washington to escalate U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria. Sustained U.S. military action against the Islamic State, even if confined to what Obama calls “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists”, will, in the eyes of Arab publics, cast the movement and those allied to it as resisting continued U.S. efforts to dominate the Muslim world.

This will not only boost the Islamic State’s already substantial popular support in the Muslim world; it will further erode America’s already severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East.

Over and Over Again 

Likewise, Obama’s pledge to boost American “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” will put the United States in the surreal position of combating the threat to U.S. interests posed by jihadi fighters by funding, arming, and training jihadi fighters.

The proposition that there is a moderate Syrian opposition with enough military potential and, even more importantly, popular support inside Syria to overthrow the Assad government is a myth. To claim in addition that these mythical moderate oppositionists can take on and defeat the Islamic State is either blatantly dishonest or dangerously delusional.

To have even a token chance of dealing effectively with the Islamic State, Washington needs to acknowledge the mistaken premises of its Syria policy, that Assad has lost the support of most Syrians and can be overthrown by externally-supported oppositionists, and recognize that ending the anti-Assad insurgency is essential to cutting off the Islamic State’s base in northeastern Syria.

Ostensibly moderate and secular Syrian opposition groups have, for the most part, been well penetrated by their Islamist counterparts.

The White House is (to put it mildly) dancing around reports that elements in one of the supposedly “moderate” and secular Syrian opposition groups to which the Obama administration now wants to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military and financial support sold Steven Sotloff to the Islamic State militants who would later behead him.

For those reports highlight a big problem with the administration’s strategy:  the main thing that will be achieved by stepping up U.S. support for “moderate” Syrian oppositionists is to open up more channels through which the Islamic State can obtain more Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.

Needed:  A Real Regional Strategy 

The point about the mistaken premises of the Obama administration’s Syria policy highlights another debilitating contradiction at the heart of its stated strategy for stopping and, ultimately, dismantling the Islamic State. This contradiction grows out of the gap between the administration’s rhetoric on the need for a regional strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State and the actual conduct of its regional diplomacy.

Without doubt, there needs to be a regional strategy for dealing with the Islamic State. Obama and his senior advisers pay lip service to this idea. But their notion of a regional strategy encompasses only established and unrepresentative Sunni regimes dependent on Washington for their security, e.g., Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan.

These governments, by providing various types of support to Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, have actually facilitated the Islamic State’s extraordinary ascendance. There is no way that this sort of “regional strategy” can meaningfully contribute to halting and ultimately undermining the movement.

A real regional strategy against the Islamic State would necessarily include Russia, Iran and Syria’s Assad government, in leading positions. For those actors are all essential players in any serious effort to contain and roll back the multifaceted challenged this movement poses.

Yet senior Obama administration officials have ruled out working with either Iran or the Assad government, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, complains that the administration’s dialogue with Moscow about the Islamic State, if it can appropriately be called “dialogue”, is much more pro forma than substantive.

Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done, or, in his second term, is willing to do, to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies against which he ran his initial presidential campaign, and which have done so much to weaken America’s international position in the two and a half decades since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of  Going to Tehran. [This article previously appeared at The World Financial Review at http://www.worldfinancialreview.com/?p=2906 and http://goingtotehran.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/TWFR-Sep-Oct-2014-Americas-Never-Ending-War-in-the-Middle-East-.pdf]


13 comments for “Obama Does ‘Stupid Stuff’ in ISIS War

  1. Joe Tedesky
    October 2, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I don’t believe that all this concern about Secret Service security breaches are all apart of complicity of protection within the White House. I shouldn’t even begin to make excuses for President Obama, but I ponder with the idea that he is getting a message send to him. Why, would this be beyond belief? There are those who would play such hardball to get their way. It was a year ago when the bombing of Syria was called off, due to Putin’s interception into the Syrian chemical weapons issue. This we know really upset a lot of Neocon’s. Now, here we are once again with the plan to bomb Syria. There are many amongst us who think that bombing ISIS is only away of turning on the Syrian government. Also, from a stratgic point of view, bombing in Syria is one way of clearing a path towards bombing Iran.

  2. Bruce
    October 2, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Warry-0’s LEADING (Not following) the Bush Company PNAC Attacks! The JEB Is UP!!

  3. Zachary Smith
    October 2, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    I shouldn’t even begin to make excuses for President Obama, but I ponder with the idea that he is getting a message send to him.

    I was going to post something like that, but you beat me to it. Remember how the US Congress got the same “message” with the anthrax mailings? It made real for them the indirect threat the skanky bitch Ann Coulter had voiced: We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too.

    Obama is being manipulated with a carrot and a stick. If he behaves himself, he may will come into great wealth after leaving office. If he doesn’t, ……..

    I had some serious misgivings about this particular essay on the first reading, for conspicuously absent was any mention of Israel and its swarms of flying monkeys – the neocons.

    So I looked up the authors. They had been in the Smirking Chimp’s administration, so they were obviously quite conservative. After a lot of googling, I finally found this:


    But with degrees from Brandeis and Harvard Law and stints at Tel Aviv University and the powerful Israeli lobby known as AIPAC, she has even better right-wing credentials than her husband.

    After reading that and some of their work at antiwar.com, I realized this was an uncommon couple all right: it was like running into a pair of albino hummingbirds. Right-wing for sure; but well educated, experienced, intelligent, and most unexpected of all, decent.

    So the failure to mention Israel wasn’t an accident. This piece is about the shortcomings of “America’s political and policy elites”. The rampant stupidity and the endless flailing around.

    Some of the actors probably have substantial financial motives. Larry Johnson posted this at his noquarter site:

    You cannot make this up. Per the Pentagon briefer today–a three star Army General–we launched a $1.4 million dollar cruise missile to take out a $5,000 antennae array on top of a building in Syria. Yeah, that’s cost effective.

    It’s also amazingly profitable for the maker of the mega-dollar missiles. That kind of money sure does encourage taking the short view.

    I believe the husband-and-wife team made their point. US policy is a total mess, and there are few signs of it getting any better.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      Zachary it is nice to have you agree with me. You know when it’s only one your crazy, when its two its a conversation, and when its three its all out revolution. Actually President Obama should hire the mafia to protect him…I trust those guys more than that DC clan who wraps their arms around you and call you, ‘my friend’.

    • F. G. Sanford
      October 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      Joe and Zachary- both your comments ring true- regarding the motivation behind this article, I’d say it stems from rational self-interest. I think these two are intellectually honest, and realize that continued Neocon apeshit war-mongering will eventually destroy Israel. They can’t come right out and say it. But I’m sure they think Netanyahu is a sociopath and Israeli politics is based delusional mythology. And, I think the puppet-masters are trying to encourage Neocon self-destructiveness, not the other way around. Please see comment below.

    • Abe
      October 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      Zachary, Joe and F.G. — all your comments resonate with vital inquiry. Much as I appreciate the high quality of reporting here at Consortium News, I find the deeper questions addressed in your comments. Thank you for sharing your voices of heart and reason.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 2, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Yeah, but Abe you provide so many interesting links and comments, I wonder if you ever stop reading. Joe Tedesky

  4. F. G. Sanford
    October 2, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    The notion of the “deep state”, the unseen but omnipotent cabal of wealth and power that really pulls the strings, is a Turkish concept. It has real merit as a cognitive tool, and is NOT regarded as a delusional fantasy or “conspiracy theory” among many serious scholars of history and politics. If we concede, JUST FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT, mind you, that such a thing exists, we must ask, “What agenda does it serve?” The consensus of late seems to be that Washington has acquiesced to the “war party” and its Neocons, whose whining, cajoling, media manipulation and intimidation of politicians through lobbying efforts are driving foreign policy. But if that were true, the “deep state” wouldn’t be a “deep state”, now…would it? If I had to pick a bona fide “deep state” actor, it wouldn’t be Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers. They lack that essential “deep state” pedigree. I would pick somebody like John Kerry or John McCain. But in a recent article by Robert Fisk, he points out that, “Just when you thought Kerry’s statements couldn’t get any more infantile, they did just that.” Could that be just an act? Stop and think about it.

    If the ISIS chronicles are a manifestation of “deep state” politics rather than delusional or dishonest “stupid stuff” politics, then a hard look at the long view of possible outcomes is in order. The patently ludicrous “coalition” of crown jewel allies are just that – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, U.A.E., Quatar, Bahrain – and our NATO “ally” Turkey. These elements have all, in some way, aided and abetted the head-chopping crazies, mainly to direct their animosity elsewhere. At the same time, ISIS is fundamentally opposed to those very potentates whom it considers immoral apostates and evil transgressors.

    The policy which seeks to thwart Assad can only help ISIS. In the long run, that threatens two countries more than any others: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The rational actors in the region are Syria and Iran. Syria has a secular tradition, and Iran is NOT an Arab country. Egypt is an economic disaster, and Libya is now a cesspool of cutthroat tribalism.

    Deep state actors traditionally emerge from pedigreed snobbery the likes of Dulles, Forbes, Walker, Bush and other such notables of ‘high moral fiber’ and selfless dedication to our ‘Christian’ nation. (Sarcasm Alert!) But when you get to know them really, really well, they don’t have any profound or enduring loyalty to any mythological or spiritual frivolities, let alone Bohemian nouveaux riche. They’re a network bound by mutual interests. Neocon pipe dreams could easily become a thorn in their sides, as I suspect Kerry may have realized when his hopes for a diplomatic tour de force were dashed asunder by Netanyahu’s petulance.

    Americans lack class consciousness, and our keepers like it that way. But it’s a factor that needs to be considered. Ignorance of it provides camouflage. Ours is a profoundly class-based society, but it’s not just a matter of wealth. Real ‘class’ is hard to define, but it doesn’t include nightclub owners, toilet paper distributors or professional politicians, no matter how rich they get. FDR had it, and so did JFK. Lately, not so much, and not likely in the next election cycle.

    Those “deep state” actors may be getting about fed up. What would it cost them if Saudi Arabia and Egypt suddenly succumbed to Salafi revisionism? Probably not much, and they’d have to listen to a lot less whining. Neocons should probably be mindful of what they wish for. If this policy is carried to its logical conclusion, their “homeland” is not long for this world.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 2, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      F.G. now you starting to sound a little like Carroll Quigley. I love it! Joe Tedesky

    • Abe
      October 2, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Peter Dale Scott on the American Deep State

      Scott has written about the role of the “deep state” (as opposed to the “public state”). Rejecting the label of “conspiracy theory”, he uses the term “deep politics” to describe the deep network of power that underlies key events.

      Scott is the author of:
      Drugs, Oil and War (2003)
      The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire and the Future of America (2007)
      The War Conspiracy: JFK, 911, and the Deep Politics of War (2008)
      American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan (2010)

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 3, 2014 at 9:29 am

      F.G. Your comment here makes me think of ‘old money’ vs ‘new money’ . Over 20 some years ago my wife and I were house guest at this fellows home. He was of the old money set. His family went back in American ownership to before the civil war. There were pictures of him with every president starting with Nixon. Because he was so wealthy he didn’t need to pretend he was important. This nice rich guy explained to me over a couple of beers how the rich campaign donor gives to both, or all the candidates. They hedge their donations.

      Sheldon Adelson is our modern day HL Hunt. Most mafia don’s were nothing like the ego maniac that Al Capone was. John Gotti was another mob boss who loved the limelight. I am sure that the Koch brothers have a great deal of influence, but like you stated, they are not the great ones behind the curtain.

      Showing off isn’t that smart. Having the real power while driving a Chevy to the bank is beyond smart…it’s genius.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 3, 2014 at 10:10 am

      To further beat a dead horse, here is a quote from President Obama at the 2013 White House Correspondent Diner;

      “Sheldon would have been better off offering me $100 million to drop out of the race. (Laughter and applause.) I probably wouldn’t have taken it, but I’d have thought about it. (Laughter.) Michelle would have taken it. (Laughter.) You think I’m joking? (Laughter.)”


      Now, making fun of the shadow government King could be a nice cover, but it also could be very much a deal killer…depends on the King’s sense of humor, I guess. As it was, Obama didn’t drop out of the race.

      I think there is a collective kind of group think that goes on behind the scene. We probably should fear the most; Big Pharma. The Military Congressional Industrial Complex, and AIPAC. Now, I need to take this call on line 3…it maybe the president!

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 3, 2014 at 11:49 am

        I’m back, wasn’t him.

        Forgot to mention the Imperial Council of Foreign Relations, the CFR, Wall Street Bankers….

        Sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t when we are talking about their one common thread….MONEY!

        Now, get back to work!

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