Obama’s no-win choices on ISIS

Tonight President Obama will address the nation on what his administration plans to do about “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant) or ISIS, ISIL, or just IS.

Whatever you call it, Obama is faced with a messy situation that is only going to get worse. Strategically, militarily, and politically.

Whatever he describes will be demonized by Republicans, neocons, and suddenly war-hungry members of the media as being either too much or too little, too soon or too late, or too fuzzy or too nuanced.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R, Ga.), who lost his bid to be the GOP nominee for senator, figured he has nothing to lose, so he let loose with some real Republican tactics and accidentally told the truth about whatever Obama proposes to do about ISIS. As he said in a story in The New York Times: “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

He’s not the only one, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose failed war in Iraq wasn’t apparently enough for him, met with House Republicans to talk about ISIS. He didn’t have anything substantive to say, of course, beyond an admonition that the GOP take a more “muscular” military posture and keep repeating the line that Obama is “weak.” Memo to Darth Cheney: Tell me again who succeeded in taking out Osama bin Laden and who let him slip away.

Some Republicans, like Rep. Peter King of New York, said, “Most of us think we did the right thing in Iraq.” Actually, Rep. King, that’s not even close to being true — vast numbers of Americans say the Iraq War wasn’t worth it. That’s why “boots on the ground” is not an option.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R, Ga.) told a group of Republicans at a breakfast in Cobb County, Ga., over the weekend that “I think our enemy stands on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.” to huge applause, according to an online report in the Marietta Daily Journal. There’s real patriotism for you, GOP — calling your president “the enemy.” Imagine what those same Republicans would have done if Democrats had ever been so blatant in criticizing President George W. Bush.

One wonders why media outlets keep giving blanket coverage to anything Republicans say about ISIS, even when it’s substance-free. Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), who holds the record for the most Sunday morning talk show appearances, was back on denouncing Obama and demanding “action” without offering specifics. Any specifics he has offered have proven to be wrong, like when he wanted to arm the Syrian rebel group that turned out to be ISIS.

So ridiculous partisanship aside, what can Obama offer? The American public answers vague polling questions on wanting to “do more” against ISIS. The public is still under the delusion that there’s no downside to bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and now possibly Syria.

Do they really think dropping bombs is free? The ones we’ve been dropping in Iraq cost $7.5 million per day. Imagine how fast costs will grow if that expands.

What about human costs? Does the public really think no civilians will be killed — just the ISIS bad guys? Too many Americans are still under the impression that it’s easy to drop a bomb and fly out, and that there will be no repercussions. When war is looked upon that dispassionately and bloodlessly, people think there’s no way anyone in the U.S. could get hurt. Ask the families of the U.S. soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan by those they were training — those who turned on U.S. troops, angered by drone strikes and worse.

ISIS is a different kind of terrorist threat in many ways. The militants hit the jackpot when they faced Iraqi forces who cut and run at the first sight of an enemy weapon. Consequently, ISIS was able to go into various towns and capture American-made weapons and loot deserted banks to the tune of $400 million, according to an NBC report, although U.S. officials estimated that those windfalls were much less. ISIS also is getting huge cash inflows from selling crude oil, often lying about the oil’s point of origin and smuggling it out through Turkey. ISIS shakes down ordinary citizens, requiring drivers to pay “road taxes” in ISIS-controlled areas.

Finally, ISIS gets millions every time the group kidnaps a foreign national and demands millions in ransom. Although the United States and the United Kingdom refuse to pay such ransoms, some European countries and wealthy relatives of kidnapped victims have no qualms about turning over millions of dollars for the victims’ return. ISIS has been paid $25 million in ransom fees in the last two years, the NBC report said.

Even al Qaeda denounced ISIS’ actions as giving terrorism a bad name. And although many in the Middle East are turning against the group’s extreme militancy — the latest Internet meme is burning ISIS flags, which apparently has gone as viral as the ALS ice bucket challenge — it’s picking up supporters from somewhere. There’s no way to really tell; estimates of the group’s strength range from 10,000 to 100,000. Yet as recently as a few months ago, ISIS’ strength was estimated at 5,000 militants. There are certainly some imports from the UK, the U.S., and other countries, as evidenced by the London-accented voice of the militant who beheaded American journalist James Foley, and reports of some U.S. citizens being killed who were ISIS members.

The best hope Obama has is to build a strong coalition of Middle East partners willing to stand up to the militants. That means money, weapons, and troops from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have been hesitant to commit for fear of offending Sunni neighbors.

Of course, that would be a lot easier if Republican senators weren’t holding up appointments of ambassadors to Turkey and other countries, as they’ve been doing for a long time. Negotiation is more successful when you have a diplomat in place.

The ultimate answer to what happens to Iraq lies in Iraq itself. There will be no control of ISIS without an effective Iraqi government and an effective Iraqi military.

President George H.W. Bush took his time and built an effective coalition against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. They were REALLY willing, unlike the other countries in the coalition his son’s administration built. Will the public, the media, and Republicans give time for Obama to do the same? I think we all know the answer to that.

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