Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort

Almost immediately after United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron received approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Tornado bombers, as the one pictured above, began engaging in highly effective airstrikes in Iraq. While some nations as the United Kingdom have contributed significantly to the anti-ISIS air campaign, the efforts of many other partners in the 60 nation coalition have been negligible or nonexistent militarily.

According to an October 22. 2014 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against the Islamic State?”, as the administration of US President Barack Obama ramps up its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), it is also trying to present itself as acting with the support of a broad range of partner nations. The article notes the US State Department lists more than 60 countries as members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. However, the qualifications for inclusion in that coalition are nominal. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that “simply exposing the true nature” of ISIS can qualify a nation for the coalition. Western coalition partners continue participating in airstrikes in Iraq, however, the Pentagon has not discussed the participation of Arab partners. To date, few countries have joined the US for airstrikes within Syria since October 14, 2014, following a week of apparently US-only strikes there. The US Central Command noted in its daily statement on October 21, 2014, that “out of respect for participating nations, US Central Command will defer to partner nations to publicly comment on their airstrikes” against ISIS.  Of the 60 countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily. The October 22nd Foreign Policy article alleges that US claimed that there were even commitments from coalition partners of ground troops to fight ISIS, but those offers never materialized.

The Multilateral Gambit

It was in 2014 that the Obama administration really began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. As it was explained in the greatcharlie.com post, ” Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!”, organizing multinational efforts to resolve foreign and defense policy issues is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise.

Understanding the importance of the campaign against ISIS, United Kungdom Prime Minister gained approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Royal Air Force almost immediately engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. However, no Western state such as the United Kingdom, which is already fighting ISIS from the air and possesses a genuine capability to engage in land warfare, would willingly or robustly go into Iraq or Syria. Indeed, national leaders of Western states would not want to assume the risks of intervening with ground troops now, especially when most of those leaders truly feel that level of commitment would not “exactly” be within their nation’s interests. Despite the terrorist attack in Canada and thwarted attacks in Australia, in many capitals, the loyal opposition and many  policy experts have taken the position that their governments have overstated the international threat from ISIS. Those criticisms have also placed restraints on just how much national leaders can do.

Placing Partners under Pressure

Oddly, the Obama administration also appears to have requested Western allies and coalition partners commit their armed forces to military action in Iraq and Syria even though the administration would not make a similar commitment of US forces. That approach was unrealistic.  Obama publicly indicated a hesitancy to act militarily in both Iraq and Syria. As a rationale for its hesitancy to commit the US military, Pentagon officials  explained “the US military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach” to ISIS. On October 22, 2014, The Washington Post reported that the US determined newly trained mainstream Syrian opposition fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from ISIS, without the support of forward-deployed US combat troops. Alternatively, those mainstream opposition fighters will only be assigned to defend already-controlled territory. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the current train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of its fighting force, Free Syrian Army, to enable them to counter ISIS; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” One country the US has pressured for action against ISIS is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is curious. Turkey likely reached the same  conclusions  as the US about conditions for engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria. There would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work. If Turkey’s operations in Syria “creeped” beyond destroying ISIS and it effectively displaces the Assad regime, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition. Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on what would be the political, economic, and social basket case as Syria would be to Turkey’s benefit now.

Given the diminutive size and inappreciable impact of contributions by many coalition partners, as outlined in the October 22nd Foreign Policy  article, it would seem as beneficial to the Obama administration not to publicize the relative efforts of coalition partners as it would be for the partners themselves. Such information may create doubt over just how much the world is really behind the US in the anti-ISIS effort. In any event, more will certainly need to be done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS than simply promote the simulacrum of a broad multilateral effort. If coalition partners are not carrying as much of the burden as may have been hoped, but perhaps should have been expected, the US must step up its own efforts. That would mean allowing military planners not to simply devise the best plans feasible under constraints set by the Obama administration. Civilian control and political guidance without question is necessary. However, provided with everything they actually need, and working within well calibrated parameters established US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey–who is unquestionably honor bound, US military planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience, would undoubtedly develop far more effective plans for the use of airpower. Hamstringing the US military by insisting it develop war plans based on some illusion within the Obama administration that some proportional level of multilateral cooperation will ever materialize, will practically ensure operations against ISIS, although  will not yield the desired outcome: the destruction of ISIS. The Obama administration appears to be attempting mulgere hircum! (To milk a male goat!; To attempt the impossible!)

Assessment

The comedian and late night talk show host in the US, David Letterman, said “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: ‘Operation Hillary’s Problem’.” The US-led anti-ISIS operation’s true name is Operation Inherent Resolve. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is fully committed to defeating ISIS right now and not leaving the job to his predecessor. Yet, the fight against ISIS is more than just an operation. It is a war being fought against a barbaric adversary. Its leaders and fighters are deluded by the conceit that they are fighting for God. The decision to take action against ISIS was laudable and represented the heights of US foreign policy which in the Obama administration has at times seemed full of contradictions. Likewise, the insistence on presenting the veil of multilateral action when the US is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the US-led coalition against ISIS represents the depths of US foreign policy. It creates the impression that the US military effort is driven more by political expedience than the best military approach possible. Looking good is not as important as being good. Doing what is necessary to win this war must have priority over all other interests. The US and it coalition partners may be on the same team, but the Obama administration must accept that the US will need to both block and carry the ball over the goal line and not hide the fact it is doing so.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.