Arguments Q+A: ISIS, the Obama Legacy, and the Future of Progressive Foreign Policy

A conversation with Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.

By Nathan Pippenger

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved President Obama’s plan to combat ISIS by training and arming the moderate Syrian opposition. Skeptics of the plan include members of the President’s own party, particularly those progressives who are stunned to see the U.S. engaged, once again, in military action in Iraq. On Thursday, I spoke with Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress (CAP), who has researched the Syrian opposition and other national-security topics, and who wrote about progressive foreign policy for Democracy earlier this year (“Against Disengagement,” Issue # 32). About a week ago, Katulis argued that Obama’s plan, “with all of its details to be filled in and shortcomings, is pretty much the only game in town for now.” Katulis co-wrote a CAP report that interviewed over 50 representatives from the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and others. The report concluded that partnerships with the Syrian opposition—for the short-term goal of fighting ISIS and the long-term goal of removing Assad from power—are still possible, but that they will require careful sequencing, diplomatic coordination, and patience. “It will take time—perhaps several years,” the report warns, “to turn vetted opposition groups into an effective fighting force capable of taking on both ISIS and the Assad regime.”

Katulis and I spoke about the President’s ISIS strategy, the formation of his foreign policy legacy, and the state of foreign policy thinking on the left. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

Let’s start with ISIS, which has led President Obama—in spite of himself—back into Iraq. We started there with a mission to save the Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar. Now we’re discussing airstrikes and destroying ISIS, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is discussing the possibility of ground troops. What’s going on, and what’s next?

Right now, the Administration quite clearly is still developing three key components of its strategy. First is the Syria front, which needs greater detail and attention. Second is the Iraq strategy, which is most developed, but still fraught with booby traps. Third is the regional, international coalition—which in this day and age is easier said than done.

What I expect will happen is very tepid and cautious support for the training and equipping extension of that effort with the Syrian opposition. The Administration is putting all the pieces into place, but the weakest is the Syria component of the anti-ISIS strategy—because they haven’t clarified how they’re going to ramp up the efforts to support the Syrian opposition and direct that assistance in a way that leads to not only defeating ISIS, but their longer term goal of a transition in Syria. Right now, quite candidly, I think they’d admit a lot of the pieces don’t add up—they could be a viable strategy, in terms of using some targeted force within a political framework. But I think what’s missing in Syria is an idea of what the political endgame looks like. They’re still putting the flesh on the bones of the strategy that the President outlined.

Are there any ‘moderates’ in Syria left to arm? Are they numerous enough to turn the tide?

We did more than 50 interviews on the ground in places like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and we wrestled with that one. But our bottom line is, there’s still an opposition to work with, although it’s deeply fractured. The most interesting question, I think, is their absorptive capacity. Calibrating the assistance, and funneling it in a way that leads to greater coherence, will be a very difficult task.

Moderates in the Syrian opposition do exist; they’re not all extremists. But if we simply flood them with cash, weapons, and training, without a gradual approach to their organizational coherence and making them stronger, then we’re just going to waste money and make the conflict in Syria even more fractured than it is.

In your Democracy piece (“Against Disengagement”), you said that on foreign policy, conservatives were divided and progressives were muddled. But surely progressives are divided too—many are now complaining that our return to Iraq shows that we haven’t learned any lessons from the past.

There’s no denying that critique.

The broader point is that the battle lines have been redrawn. I think the Syria debate in 2013 was a signal of that. Those older labels—neoconservative, liberal interventionist—mean very little today. Those camps exist, but they’re much smaller.

To focus in on the left, there is a pacifist, anti-war wing of the Democratic Party that needs to be respected. Their advocacy for diplomacy is a key component of the progressive tradition. And there are also a number of people who feel once bitten, twice shy when it comes to voting for anything related to war. The overall instinct to not have a broader debate about the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed after 9/11) is disappointing. It shows that there are many voices who really don’t want to be engaged on these issues. They don’t really want to be held accountable themselves, which is a very bad thing.

And for all of our talk about smart power as country, we’re not very smart about actually debating how to use those other components. We are still so enamored with what we’re doing militarily—yet that’s horribly incomplete with a threat like ISIS. To me it avoids a central question: why groups like ISIS remain a threat, and why they mutate in many different forms if we simply hit them with military strikes. One would hope that would be the lesson of the last 13 years, since 9/11. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. We can’t just shock and awe people into submission. We need to get others to act differently. My main complaint is about where our national debate is.

Does this broad skepticism about military force mean we’re in for a period of decline in left-humanitarianism?

There’s a bit of generalized suspicion. Of course, early on in the Syria conflict, you had people calling for no-fly zones, safe zones, etc., to prevent a growing genocide inside of Syria. But those calls weren’t cohesive and organized, because I think we’re all so deeply embarrassed by the strategic errors the Bush Administration made. I’m not a liberal interventionist in the classic sense—I was against the 2003 war—but there’s a camp of prominent thinkers who were in favor. And I think that combines with an overriding sense that in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where we’ve spent so much blood and treasure, basic respect for human dignity still seems so far away. It should pain progressives more. We should debate it more.

Otherwise we’ll fall into a realist, balance-of-power conception of the world that increasingly no longer applies, where the threats and challenges comes from non-state actors and transnational forces and dynamics like climate change. If we’ve lost the core vision of things like the Responsibility to Protect—and we have lost a bit of that because of the way it was implemented by the Bush Administration—so their overreach has produced an underreach.

You noted in “Against Disengagement” that 2014-2015 will be hugely important in determining Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Will Obama be remembered as the President who ended President Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who advanced a nuclear deal with Iran, and who won a Nobel Peace Prize? Or will he go down as the “drone president” who intervened in Libya and led us back into Iraq and, possibly, Syria?

It’s still too soon to tell—that’s why I think Iraq and Syria is potentially so defining and seismic for his legacy. As you describe, it has been a tale of two presidencies.

But you saw, earlier this year in his West Point speech, an attempt to lay the foundation for squaring those things. There’s this question of the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, which is a great idea in concept. It could potentially—depending on how they develop it—deal with these two different strands in his own policy. If the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund is simply Special Ops and CIA paramilitary training Afghan local police, and replicating that across multiple countries, that’s potentially disastrous for the progressive cause. Because it doesn’t do things like build institutions that are accountable and have a framework.

Do you think Obama is reading Kissinger’s new book? Should he be?

I don’t know when the guy has time to read, but I know he reads. [Laughs] In many ways, I think he tipped towards that balance-of-power approach and was perceived to have done so.

The main thing I would say is that when you strip away the cheap political rhetoric and criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, when historians look back on this, they’ll see he was trying to adapt pretty smartly to the times. There may have been underreach on certain components of it, but when you look at his speeches and policies, it’s a real attempt to approach national security from a different angle.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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