December 01, 2015

Shaping U.S. Policy on Islamic State Amid Shifting Politics

By Richard Fontaine

An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks found that 73% of Americans support increased airstrikes against Islamic State and 60% favor increased use of U.S. ground forces–double the level from a year ago. Another survey found that a strong majority oppose the deployment of U.S. ground troops to Iraq and Syria, though some 60% favor intensifying the assault against Islamic State. Some in Congress are among those calling for a more forceful approach; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for instance, has said that “We need to be aggressive now,” and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said the U.S. should “send however many guys or assemble whatever coalition is necessary” to destroy ISIS.

Amid shifting opinions, intensification of the fight against ISIS appears increasingly necessary–and likely. Just how should that approach be shaped?

The first step is to understand the president’s discretion and powers in matters of national security. The Constitution and traditional deference to the executive in wartime put the scale and scope of the fight against ISIS almost exclusively in the hands of the president, top administration officials, and military commanders. Recall that in 2007, a majority in both houses of Congress called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and polls showed a majority of Americans favored a withdrawal timetable–yet President George W. Bush increased U.S. troop levels. And while constraining a president’s national security decisions is hard, pushing him to intensify an effort against his inclination is more difficult. In 2012, key advisers to President Barack Obama, including his secretary of state and CIA director, urged him to arm Syrian rebels. He demurred.

Since the Paris attacks, realizations have grown about ISIS’s desire and ability to sow violence in Europe and beyond. Michael Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, wrote recently in Politico that “Whatever we would do if ISIL made good on its threat to attack Washington, D.C. and New York, we should instead do now, before the attack occurs.” He is surely right, with one critical caveat: The administration should take the steps now that would follow such an attack–provided that those actions were decided with clarity and not reflexively. The key is to avoid underreacting to the ISIS threat before a tragedy occurs and overreacting after it.

In all this, public sentiments may prove a fickle guide. Actions that were unthinkable on Sept. 10, 2001–invading Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban, arming Predator drones–were seen as prudent and even necessary just days later. Today we see policymakers reflecting less on what the public will tolerate and focusing more on what the people will demand.

The president and his team would do well to flip these considerations on their head. Rather than reading public sentiment and reflecting those preferences in rhetoric and policy–as President Obama has done by repeatedly telling war-weary Americans that he would not return combat troops to Iraq nor put “boots on the ground” in Syria–they should let the policy drive the politics. This means making hard calls about dollars spent, troops deployed, allies cajoled, energy expended, and diplomacy pursued–and then articulating their reasons.

A good place to start would be to cut through the rhetorical cul de sac the president has worked himself into on troops in Syria and Iraq. Administration officials have argued feebly that the deployment of Special Operations forces to Syria doesn’t constitute “boots on the ground” and that the 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and the warplanes bombing both countries do not represent “combat.” Congress and the public would be far more likely to understand if they articulate the scale of the threat posed by Islamic State; explain why, notwithstanding Mr. Obama’s past commitments to avoid conflicts, the United States must combat that threat; and detail a sound concept for success.

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