In his State of the Union address, President Trump hardly mentioned foreign policy. But he did repeat his campaign promise to “demolish ISIS” and “extinguish (it) from the planet.”
The battle to uproot the so-called Islamic State, which is centered in the cities of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, has been underway for months, using local forces backed by U.S. advisers and air power. The president wants it done faster.
Given the historical moment, I will be traveling this week to northern Iraq – near Mosul – to hear what Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds say about their hopes for the post-ISIS future. I will also be asking what role they want the United States to play in that future, and whether they believe a continuing small U.S. troop presence could help prevent the emergence of ISIS 2.0.
Trump has called for a new military strategy, and last week the Defense Department submitted preliminary options to up the pace (including sending a few hundred more U.S. troops to help Syrian Kurds and Arabs retake Raqqa). And yes, speed matters, since U.S. officials believe new attacks in Europe are being planned in Raqqa.
But it’s insufficient for the White House to push for military victory and then turn its back on the region. Unless any military plan is nested in a broader political strategy to stabilize Syria and Iraq, we can expect Son of ISIS to arise in the not-too-distant future.
In the words of the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Iraq Ryan Crocker: “You can get it quick or you can get it right.”
A broader political strategy would require the United States to play a global leadership role in which Trump shows little interest. It would require close cooperation with NATO and Mideast allies along with intense diplomacy to stabilize Syria and Iraq.
Yet this White House wants to ax 37 percent from the State Department budget. It has prevented Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from appointing the deputy secretary he chose to help run his department. Moreover, the Trump inner circle is also at war with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a strategic thinker of the first order, over his choice of Anne Patterson for the key post of undersecretary for policy, the highest civilian job in the department. Patterson, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan, is tough, farsighted, and knowledgeable about the Mideast and how to deal with jihadis.
Key White House officials are opposing Patterson because she supposedly worked too closely with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government from 2012 to mid-2013. Never mind that Morsi and his government were chosen by Egyptian voters in free and fair elections. At the time, working with them held more promise for moderating their views than displaying open hostility. (Morsi was ultimately overthrown by a military coup.)
Some White House officials have an obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood. (They consult conspiracy theorists and Islamophobes who insist the Brotherhood penetrated the highest levels of U.S. government.) These officials want to put the MB on the list of terrorist organizations.
Never mind that listing the Brotherhood would cause an uproar in Turkey, whose cooperation is vital for the fight against ISIS. Never mind that U.S. allies such as Turkey, Qatar and Tunisia have governments or major political parties that have roots in the Brotherhood; the organization’s different branches aren’t monolithic and most hew to nonviolence. Never mind that Patterson was doing what any smart U.S. ambassador should have been doing: trying to engage with elected Islamist groups in order to understand and influence their behavior.
The same kind of blinkered White House thinking could undercut the role of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, another strategic thinker with broad knowledge of the region and how to counter Islamists. It’s still unclear whether McMaster will be permitted to choose the staff he wants, or whether he will have the president’s ear.
If the president’s inner circle undercuts the Cabinet members and advisers who are best placed to devise a long-term Mideast strategy, you can be certain that none will be developed.
So the verdict is still out on whether Trump will focus on short-term military tactics, and rhetorical tirades against “radical Islamic terrorism,” while letting the jihadis regroup in the post-ISIS era. It’s still unclear if Trump will turn his back on the region after the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, permitting new terrorist cells to organize as ISIS did from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It would be ironic if Trump goes the tactical route, since it would imitate the mistake made by President Barack Obama, who pulled troops completely out of Iraq in 2011 (on a schedule set by President George W. Bush, whose 2003 Iraq war set the stage for the current regional mess). Yet this strategic error is not out of the question.
Most Americans would probably like the future U.S. role in Iraq and Syria to be minimal – a view that tracks with Donald Trump’s. But averting our eyes, and blocking visas for Muslim immigrants, won’t be enough to prevent a terrorist resurgence in the region that will have a global impact and inevitably affect us. Nor will it prevent Iran and Russia from filling the vacuum caused by our absence.
I’ll be asking Iraqis and Syrians, both Kurds and Arabs, how they think America can get it right.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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