ISIL fighters marching through a town in Northern Iraq.
ISIL fighters marching through a town in Northern Iraq.

Congress took a courageous, or not, vote on authorizing the President to strike the terror group known as ISIL with air strikes as well as arm and train “vetted,” “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight the group.  Then, as soon as the vote was complete with a complex coalition of Republicans and Democrats for and against, Congress hightailed it out of DC last week.  With an election less than two months out both Democrats and Republicans got what they wanted out of the vote. Republicans kept the government-funded and Democrats gave their President the authority to assert a muscular foreign policy.

The vote by Congress marks a back and forth saga with engaging ISIL that began more than three years ago when the intelligence community came before the President and warned him about the group.  The White House, focused like a laser on the President’s reelection, didn’t care.  However, they did start to notice when the group began filling a power vacuum in both Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, the years long civil war against Bashar Assad had allowed the group to form.  In Iraq, without a recognized government and a pathetically weak army, ISIL marched almost to Baghdad.  If not for the Kurds and US airstrikes, Baghdad might be under their control.

Against this foreign policy backdrop Congress acted.  However, many of the supporters of the authorization made clear they were not happy about doing so.  Many members felt they had been backed into a corner on the issue.  Many who voted no felt the same.  Considering the White House ignored multiple warnings about the group their concerns are probably justified.  But blame deserves to go the American public as well for the situation.  This is hardly a new theme.

Both the US public and politicians have hardly been rational in their foreign policy decisions.  Indeed, post-WWII American foreign policy is filled with issues.  In the 50’s, to thwart the Soviet Union we backed a pro-Western unpopular Shah in Iran.  He was overthrown in 1979 sparking the Iranian Hostage Crisis.  The 60’s were characterized by the disaster that is known as the Vietnam War.  Let’s not forget Chile and allowing a barbaric pro-Western government to murder thousands (but hey, it was pro-western).  The 70’s created the foundation of the modern-day Al Qaeda by funding rebels in Afghanistan against a Soviet takeover.  The 80’s saw the Iranian/Iraq War, we sided with Iraq and the Lebanon marine bombing.  The fall of the USSR was supposed to symbolize a world at peace but all it meant was war was to become asymmetrical.  Indeed, the Gulf War is arguably the last modern state vs. states war.

The American public is understandably tired of war.  Trillions have been sunk into Iraq and Afghanistan and combating terrorism.  Terrorism is still alive and well and we are now heading back into Iraq.  Afghanistan is still fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban remains.  But the public has also been unreasonably unrealistic in their demands of the President and Congress on how to deal with ISIL.  Public opinion surveys show a majority of Americans do not want boots to hit the ground in Iraq, a majority supports airstrikes, yet they also want ISIL defeated.  Memo to America; you cannot do that unless you use overwhelming force and air strikes only provide so much force.

The American public’s obfuscation on foreign policy has/had an impact on our electoral politics.  In the 50’s and 60’s Republicans and Democrats were viewed as equally trustworthy on foreign policy.  But starting in the 70’s and continuing through today the stereotype Democrats are weak on foreign policy took hold while Republicans are the ones who are rational and strong.  Bush’s handling of foreign policy drove down GOP numbers on the issue but Obama’s handling of the issue has rescued the GOP.

Ironically. as the Democratic Party’s base has become even more doveish on foreign policy many Democrats have become more hawkish.  Republicans, less trusting of acting on the world stage after being burned by Bush, are starting to see a resurgence in foreign policy activism amid their ranks.  Still, this hardly characterized both the Senate and House votes.  More Republicans than Democrats in the House voted for authorization but of the 22 no votes in the Senate only five came from Senate Democrats.

Critics have different reasons for opposing the move.  The more hawkish wing of the GOP opposes the action because it is not strong enough (boots on the ground crowd).  Both Republicans and Democrats dislike the move because it is not seen as feasible.  How do you vet Syrian rebel groups in a short timeframe?  Ditto with training.  However, all sides agree and worry the move could bring us that much closer to an all out war to eliminate ISIL in the region.

The President has worked to bring multiple coalition members on board.  France dropped its first bombs on Friday.  The UK is likely to participate in the air campaign as well.  More importantly for the legitimacy of the move in the region, Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow Syrian groups to train in their territory.  So far America has walked a tightrope on the effort.  We want to eliminate ISIL without putting boots on the ground, we want Arab allies to legitimize the effort and we do not want to face blow-back from another foreign policy decision gone bad.   It seems likely though sooner or later we are going to fall off that tightrope and have to deal with the consequences.


Addendum: US bombers kicked off their air campaign yesterday with dozens of strikes against ISIS targets in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria Monday.


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