Republican Thoughts on ISIS : A Brookings comparison

Below is the Brookings article paired with my comments in italics.

William McCants | September 11, 2015 8:00am
Ten silly ideas for fighting ISIS

The next U.S. president will have to deal with the Islamic State (or ISIS) on his or her very first day in office. The group is an army, a terrorist group, and a proto-state in a strategic region. Its brutal tactics and harsh rule threaten the Middle East and bear at least partial responsibility for the European refugee crisis. With the second Republican presidential debate coming next week, it makes sense to ask what the candidates intend to do about this problem from hell and whether their views make any sense.

1. Oil Spot Strategy: Donald Trump advocates sending American troops in to seize ISIS oil fields because those are the group’s “primary sources of…wealth.” He would “put a ring around it and…take the oil for our country.” 

Very simplistic and wrong. First it isn’t a large source of money, especially in light of our recent attacks, and two, it isn’t our oil to take – besides crude from Texas is cheaper and easier to get to market. Verdict : not a strategy.

2. You Gotta Believe: ISIS is winning because they are willing to die for their philosophy, even if it’s wrong, argues Ben Carson. Meanwhile, “we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness. We have to change that.” Presumably, if we go back to old-fashioned American values, we’ll know how to defeat ISIS.  

Being politically correct is not why we are losing. That makes for a popular response, but still, not a strategy.  Yes since they are willing to die it does make it more difficult to defeat them.  That is known as a “Total War” for ISIS, where for us it seems to be a war of inconvenience. Verdict: More of a comment than a strategy.

3. Surge: Obama made a “fatal error” when he withdrew American troops prematurely from Iraq, says Jeb Bush. He would send more advisers and trainers to help the Iraqi forces and fight alongside them in the battlefield. In Syria, he would unite the moderate forces and back them with an undisclosed number of American troops to defeat ISIS and Bashar Assad. He would also enforce a no-fly zone over part of Syria to create safe zones for civilians. 

Probably the closest to a strategy, but know ISIS isn’t just in Iraq and Syria. Pulling all the troops out of Iraq was a mistake (just like out of AFG). Brookings is correct about Syria, where is that plan? How are Libya and Egypt working out? Verdict : close to a plan.

4. Feel the Pain: Ted Cruz only wants to tangle with ISIS for threatening “to attack the United States” and “for killing American civilians.” Even then, it would only be an “overwhelming air campaign to destroy the capability of ISIS to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States.” Otherwise, Cruz is not keen on fighting in other people’s civil wars or on nation building after the war is over.
Overwhelming air campaign is not a strategy. Working with allies is… But using Cruz’s logic I fear we would not have many Middle Eastern allies left. Verdict: not a strategy, just a tactic.

5. Proxy War: “You cannot defeat ISIL unless you hit them in those parts of Syria that they now control where the Syrian government is not even present,” says Marco Rubio. America should do the hitting from the air but leave it to the regional governments to “confront [ISIS] on the ground with U.S. special forces support, logistical support, intelligence support.”

Probably the best response similar to Bush. I would love to hear more details  in a future speech. Prob still need to add more U.S. Army trainers and troops to coordinate with our forces. Verdict: Start of a strategy discussion.

6. Surge Light: Scott Walker’s surge is less aggressive and less specific than Jeb Bush’s. It involves a no-fly zone in Syria and more advisers in Iraq who are permitted to fight ISIS. He’d increase the training of Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State and Assad but, unlike Bush, he doesn’t say he’d back them with American troops on the ground. 

Another start to a strategy, but we need more thought about Syria after Assad and more ISIS discussion outside of Syria. Verdict: yes, but more details please.

7. Talk to Our Friends: Carly Fiorina believes its “premature” to come up with a new plan to deal with ISIS. “Okay there are all these alternatives in front of us that our allies who are there have told us will help, and we’re just going to leap over all of those and talk about boots on the ground,” she says. Instead, we should hold a Camp David summit and “talk with our Arab allies about what they need from us to fight this fight.”

I think if she just calls her CENTCOM CDR, he can lay out exactly what these countries want.  Hopefully she will not be surprised that they want help from our forces too.  Throwing weapons into a fight without a lead country or strategy is not a strategy.  Verdict: this is a response, not a strategy to defeat ISIS.

8. Talk to Our Friends II: John Kasich’s position is the same as Fiorina’s—let’s talk to our Arab friends first and develop a plan together. He knows putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground isn’t politically popular but he believes it’ll come to that eventually. 

Similar here, get a brief from Central Command and the Department of State. Also know there are differences amung our regional friends. Verdict: not a strategy, but it is a starting point. He needs to research the issue a little more himself.

9. Kurds and Bombs: Mike Huckabee wants to send more weapons to the Kurds and “bomb the daylights” out of any ISIS target. He’s reluctant to commit large numbers of U.S. troops. If there’s boots on the ground, “they have to be more than just U.S. boots. There have to be boots that come from the Saudis, the Jordanians, and others.”

Possible start but seems more of a headline quote. The Kurds are a viable force but only in their limited area. More discussion needed for the rest of Syria and the region.  Verdict: Not a full strategy but would sound good on his TV show or sound bite.

10. Proxy War II: Chris Christie would train the troops of friendly Arab governments “who all see ISIS as an existential threat to their existence.” His plan is to support them with intelligence and with weapons. “We don’t want to be occupiers in the Middle East. We want to fight them there so they don’t come here.”

We already train with friendly regional governments.  More intelligence sharing would help but we would need to send advidors/coordinators and briefer so too.  Probably naive to think no U.S. troops needed.  Verdict : small start to a strategy.

Will any of these work?

None of the top ten Republican candidates want to commit large numbers of American troops to fight on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Bush and Walker want to do a bit more, Cruz wants to do a bit less, and most of the rest of the field wants to leave it to our Sunni Arab allies to figure out. 

Interestingly, the two candidates with the most unique strategies are also the frontrunners in the presidential race. Trump wants to occupy oil fields and Carson wants Americans to believe in themselves. The two candidates frame their strategies as a return to strength in American foreign policy without actually committing to a real show of force. That’s similar to the way Obama frames his own policy. 

Agreed, especially Carson.

So would any of these strategies actually work? We can leave aside the non-strategy strategies of letting our allies come up with a plan or believing in ourselves. Those aren’t actual plans, although they might lead to plans. So we’re left with the Surge of Bush and Walker, the Feel the Pain strategy of Cruz, and the Oil Spot strategy of Trump. 

Trump’s won’t work because oil isn’t actually the group’s primary source of wealth.  

Also, “putting a ring around” an oilfield is not a strategy for defeating ISIS. Perhaps it could be a small tactic implementing a much larger strategy, but it certainly is not a strategy on its own.

Bush and Walker’s Surge appeals because at least it focuses on the source of the problem in Syria, which is the Assad regime. But what happens if the plan is successful? And what will they do about all the other Islamists who are vying for power once he falls? We’re not told.

As for Cruz’s plan, it’s pretty modest: teach ISIS not to mess with the United States. But it has a clear goal that’s in line with ISIS’s own chief priority, which is to build a state in the Middle East rather than attack the United States. 

Disagree Cruz’s plan does not defeat ISIS nor would it deter them from further threats to our allies or citizens forward.

That’s a fact that gets lost in the din of overheated rhetoric about the threat the Islamic State poses. It’s a serious threat to our allies in the Middle East and, via the refugees, to Europe. But it’s not yet a threat to the U.S. homeland. The worthy debate in the Republican primaries should be over whether the United States should lead its allies against an enemy that threatens them more than it does at home.

Agree. This is a connected world, economically and militarily. We need to coordinate with our allies and regional friends alongside aiding them in our strategy to counter ISIS. Throwing our head in the sand didn’t work in the last century and it won’t work now.


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