As political leaders across the world swear to engage in total war against Isis in the wake of the massacre in Nice, not enough notice is being taken of the fact that the long-term prospects of the group will be boosted if Hillary Clinton is elected as the next US President. President Obama and the Pentagon have been giving priority to first weakening and then eliminating Isis, and have been having a fair measure of success. The Iraqi army backed by US-led air strikes have recaptured Fallujah and the self-declared Caliphate has suffered a series of defeats in both Iraq and Syria.
But Hillary Clinton’s expected choice as Defence Secretary, Michèle Flournoy, has just co-authored a report by the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington that recommends that the destruction of Isis should no longer be the overriding objective of the US in Syria, but that equal priority should be given to taking military action against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army. A new pro-US armed opposition would be built up to fight Assad, Isis, al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda clones, a process that the report admits could take years – and “during that time the dangers posed by Isis will remain”. This is not a marginal opinion among hawks in Washington, as a recently leaked memo from 51 serving State Department officials argued very much the same thing.
This proposed change of policy by a Clinton administration is all too likely, going by her past record of choosing military solutions to complex problems even when it means fighting more than one war at a time and when the outcome is unclear. As a Senator, she voted for the Iraq war in 2003 and, as Secretary of State in 2011, she was the driving force behind the Nato military intervention in Libya that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and handed over the country to criminalised warlords. Her opinions normally coincide with those on the hawkish end of the US foreign policy establishment, whose policies Obama contemptuously described in a famous interview with The Atlantic Monthly as “the Washington Playbook”.
Once Hillary Clinton is in the White House, the “Playbook” that Obama so despises will be very much back in business. A frightening preview of what is to come can be found in the CNAS report, which comes across as a caricature of Washington wishful thinking that is woefully detached from real conditions on the ground.
Instead of focusing on fighting one war against Isis and al-Qaeda until it is won, the report recommends also taking military action against Assad but without destroying the Syrian state, and this demonstration of US military strength is expected to deter Russia and Iran from further engagement in Syria. The study is reminiscent of the battle plan of a First World War general, full of certainties about how enemies and allies will respond to an attack when in reality their response is unknown.
It is worth giving some lengthy quotes from the CNAS document to get the full flavour of these preconceived notions: In western Syria, for instance, the US must not look for a political agreement between government and rebels forces, but should instead “emphasise arming and training local groups that are acceptable to the United States regardless of whether or not they are fighting Bashar al-Assad or Isis”. Such groups, which do not currently exist and which all efforts to create by the CIA and others have ended in humiliating failure, are intended not only to fight Isis and Assad, but to prevent any terrorist safe havens being created and “to marginalise al-Qaeda’s influence and presence”. In other words, they will presumably be fighting al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and their tens of thousands of experienced heavily armed fighters as well as Isis and the Syrian Army. Protagonists of a multi-tracked US military strategy in Syria have argued that the Syrian Army is not fighting Isis, but this is demonstrably untrue since it has recaptured Palmyra, ended the long Isis siege of Kweiris air base and advanced towards Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in Syria.
Potential members of this pro-US force may be intimidated by this array of merciless enemies, but they should have no fear. The report recommends that “the United States should also be willing to increase its use of military coercion and be willing to threaten and execute limited military strikes against the Assad regime in order to protect these actors while signalling to all of the key external actors in Syria, including both its Middle East partners as well as Russia and Iran, that it is willing to get more engaged”. Keep in mind that the civil war in Syria and Iraq involves many confrontations, but the most important struggle is a sectarian one between Shia and Sunni. Yet the authors of the report are under the impression that the Shia in this part of the Middle East, who see themselves as fighting a battle for their very existence, will pack up and go home because of some “limited” American air strikes.
The concept of the CNAS report is eerily similar to the plot of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, in which the undercover CIA agent Alden Pyle is seeking to create a pro-American “Third Force” in Vietnam that will be an alternative to communism and colonialism. In Syria, other players are to remain curiously passive while they wait for the US to reconstruct the political landscape to its liking. Overall, the report makes the classic blunder of assuming opponents will quail before limited threats when it may be more likely that they will respond with some counter-move of their own.
The world may soon regret the passing of the Obama years as a Clinton administration plunges into conflicts where he hung back. He had clearly learned from the outcome of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in a way that she has not. He said in a speech on terrorism in 2013 that “any US military action in foreign land risks creating more enemies” and that the Washington foreign establishment’s tendency to seek ill-considered military solutions was self-defeating. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates would write that when Hillary Clinton was pushing for bombing Libya in meetings in 2011: “I would ask, ‘Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you going looking for new ones?”’
All this is good news for Isis and al-Qaeda, whose spectacular growth since September 11 is mainly due to the US helping to spread the chaos in which they flourish. Obama could see the risks and limitations of military force, but Clinton may play straight into their hands.