Bait and switch on ISIS

President Obama has just stolen a page from the George W. Bush playbook. And Congress fell for it.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al Qaeda, but attacking him was a politically expedient way to avenge 9/11. His brutal and aggressive conduct made him a convenient target for American ire.

{mosads}Syrian President Bashar Assad had nothing to do with the beheadings of two American journalists, but it’s a lot easier to attack him than to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as the president has pledged to do. Assad’s murderous assault on his own citizens, which has caused the deaths of nearly 200,000 and forced over 3 million to flee the country, makes him an attractive target for our moral outrage.

President Obama does have a plan to deal with ISIS — but that is not what the “appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition” are interested in. ISIS is not their problem or their fight. Their goal is to bring down Assad.

All the same, Congress, with a minimum of discussion or debate, has just approved a proxy war against Assad. The authorized purposes of the aid include “defending the Syrian people from attacks” by ISIS and “protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria.” The Free Syrian Army may or may not be collaborating with ISIS, but they are certainly not protecting or defending anyone against ISIS. The one army we can count on to fight ISIS is Syria’s own.

How could Congress be fooled again, so easily?

The first problem is that politicians’ first instinct, particularly in an election season, is to “look tough.” And in Washington’s political culture, as Micah Zenko points out, toughness “is most often associated with either bombing people or threatening to bomb them.” Congress wasn’t quite ready to reenter the war in Iraq, so they acquiesced to attacking the next best target — Syria. Shamefully, most of the American media went along, with headlines suggesting that Congress authorized arming and training Syrian rebels for a “fight with the Islamic state” or “to fight Islamic militants.” Yet it’s hard to imagine that arming the Syrian opposition will do anything but strengthen Sunni extremists.

The second problem is that ISIS severely miscalculated. Whereas they publicly claimed that the beheadings were intended as retribution for U.S. air strikes in Iraq, and possibly hoped this would scare Americans away from further military involvement, the gruesome, up-close-and-personal nature of the crimes had just the opposite effect. They triggered an understandable urge to “Do something!” and a scramble to put together a strategy. With the public fervor for vengeance stoked, almost any military response, no matter how ill-conceived or how unlikely to succeed, would be hard to resist.

Finally, the sleight-of-hand was accomplished by providing Congress with something they could agree to — financing, supplying and advising non-Americans to do the fighting — while at the same time offering a far more controversial option — in essence, declaring a new war in the Middle East. Although Congress may well compound its mistake and authorize a more expansive American combat role both in Iraq and in Syria, the president’s team surely knew this was unlikely to happen before elections. After all, just a year ago, when presented with arming the Syrian rebels as the maximalist option, and without ISIS as part of the conversation, Congress balked. By pairing the anti-ISIS plan with a request to support the Syrian opposition, Obama gave Democrats a way of looking tough without provoking a backlash among their base. He provided Republicans with a solution to the division within their own party between the isolationists and the neoconservatives, giving them a way out of open fracture. And he racked up a quick foreign policy win and an image enhancement for himself.

As Chris Cillizza might say: Congrats, or something.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags Bashar Assad Free Syrian Army George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Saddam Hussein Syria
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