Obama's ISIS plan = America's third Iraq war

President Obama has laid out his plan for defeating ISIS in the Middle East. It was a strong sounding speech on Wednesday night, well argued and touched all the right points. But it had two glaring shortcomings:  there was nothing about homeland defense, and there was no mention of Plan B, if Plan A fails.

Maybe the president does have a plan for a beefed up homeland defense in light of the new ISIS threat, and just hasn’t told us about it.

Maybe he thinks it’s self-evident that if we destroy ISIS in the Middle East, we will have nothing to fear in the Middle West. But British Prime Minister David Cameron was concerned enough about the threat posed by ISIS that he outlined significant steps he would take to protect the British homeland.


President Obama should do the same. The American people are nervous; half of us feel less safe now than at any time since the original September 11th attacks.

President Obama’s Plan A strategy for dealing with ISIS is, in effect, a new Iraq War. It’s America’s third Iraq War in a generation, and it will:

- Last a long time -- well past Obama’s term in office.

- Depend on an as yet unformed, inclusive Iraqi government, working with an as yet unassembled coalition of countries in the region that may or may not include military forces of Saudi Arabia, Iran and an as yet unidentified friendly Syrian rebels.

- Aim to ‘degrade and defeat ISIL’ - a rather vague goal which we presumably will recognize once we’ve achieved it.

The president won’t call it a war, even though we will be bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and despite the fact that we have an open-ended commitment to put an as yet uncertain number of US (non-combat) boots on the ground to help the new Iraq government and the anti-ISIS coalition. And, since the president doesn’t call it a war, he won't feel the need to seek permission from Congress.

None of this fills me with confidence. It sounds like a plan with a lot of moving parts all of which have to work perfectly in order for the plan to succeed.

It also sounds like a plan the president has arrived at reluctantly, and hopes to carry it out with the bare minimum of force, thus lessening his political risk but putting our forces at considerable risk.

I’m not against this plan.  In fact, I agree with Vice President Biden that we should chase ISIS back to the Gates of Hell. I just don’t think the president’s plan is likely to succeed.  Maybe we should have a backup Plan B, just in case.  But President Obama spent considerable time Wednesday night saying what he won’t do in this Iraq War, so he’s already limited his options for any Plan B.

I’m a hawk, and don’t shy away from using America’s military might to protect our vital national interests. But I don’t believe in fighting wars half-heartedly.  If we’re in it, we should be in it to win it, whatever it takes.  If we’re not willing to do that, we shouldn’t begin.

No president should take his people to war unless he believes his cause is just, and his efforts will succeed.  No president should take his people to war just because he doesn’t know what else to do, or because it will give him a boost in the polls.

The Middle East has been engulfed in civil wars since the days of the Old Testament, well before Muhammed founded Islam. It is a place of constantly shifting alliances, and temporary allegiances.

The latest incarnation of Middle East war is between Shiites and Sunnis.  The radical Sunnis of ISIS want to establish a worldwide Caliphate under their direction. The radical Shiites in Iran also want to establish a worldwide Caliphate under their direction. Even if we do ultimately succeed in destroying ISIS, will we merely be clearing the field for a nuclear Iran to emerge and dominate the region? That’s hardly an improvement.

When there are no good options, it is useful to go back to basics. Other than the horrific inhumanity of constant, brutal war, why do we care what happens in Syria and Iraq?  What interests do we have in a region halfway around the world?  

After all, the last place we want to be is in the middle of somebody else’s civil war, especially when both sides are our sworn enemies.  As long as our two enemies are fighting and exhausting each other, don’t step in to stop them.

America does have two vital national interests in the Middle East: oil and terrorists. We want their oil; we don’t want their terrorists. If we could get oil elsewhere, and if their fighting could be contained and not threaten the American homeland, wouldn’t that solve the problem? It may sound callous, but why should we spend American blood and treasure to defend people who rarely step up to defend themselves?

A decade ago we had no choice. We had to get oil from the Middle East, and we had to fight terrorists over there or they would bring the fight to our shores, as they did so effectively thirteen years ago on September 11th.

But a lot has happened in the last thirteen years. We now have at hand the ability to get our oil from right here at home, and keep terrorists out. Let's look at this a little more closely:

OIL. We’ve always known North America was blessed with an abundant supply of energy resources in our homeland.  In the last few years American ingenuity and engineering has developed a way to extract natural gas and oil cheaply and safely, if only our political leaders would let them. The United States and our friendly neighbors in Canada and Mexico could eventually replace the Middle East as the world’s major sources of oil and natural gas if our leaders would let us export those resources.

We no longer need to rely on Arab oil to run our own, or the world’s economy.   World prices for natural gas have fallen dramatically in the last few years due to increased American production.  As North American oil swings into full production, the world prices for oil will also fall.  Experts believe oil could fall below $80/barrel.

For the last twenty years, high energy prices have made Arab oil producing states, as well as Russia, flush with cash. Rather than invest in industrial development to build their economies, they’ve spent the windfall on subsidies and weapons. They need high oil prices to meet their own payrolls. And Arab oil money is the mother’s milk of radical Islam. Lower energy prices mean a lot of angry people, and a lot of under-funded terrorists.

TERRORISTS.  Thirteen years ago, Al Qaeda took us by surprise. But American technology has advanced at warp speed over the last decade. We now have companies like Palantir, which are developing software that integrates massive amounts of data, which allows our analysts to better predict and prevent terrorist attacks.  These technologies will evolve further in the near future and can be enlisted in defending the homeland.

Protecting the homeland against terrorists has been compared to finding a needle in a haystack.  Using big data makes that haystack much smaller and more manageable. Closing the porous southern border is an essential first step. As long as American civil liberties are protected, why not use American brains and treasure to protect the homeland, instead of using American blood and treasure to fight an endless war thousands of miles from home.

Liberals criticize President Bush for the ‘original sin’ of invading Iraq. Conservatives criticize President Obama for leaving prematurely.  They are probably both right:  Bush shouldn’t have gone in, and Obama shouldn’t have gotten out.  The last decade has been filled with American mistakes and missteps in Iraq; there is plenty of blame to go around.

But we are where we are.  We can continue to point fingers at each other or we can move on.

We have new options for defending America’s vital national interests that were not available to us a decade ago.

We can now get our oil and natural gas from home, and we can keep the terrorists out. Surely those are better options than committing us to another Iraq war, with an indeterminable end and an uncertain conclusion.

We should destroy ISIS, but we are unlikely to succeed without much more clarity about the mission than the president laid out in his speech.  And whatever we do in the Middle East, we should first do no harm. Arming Syrian rebels who are Al Qaeda affiliates doesn’t improve American security. Destroying ISIS just to have it replaced by a nuclear Iran which controls the region is not a win.

I usually find myself critical of President Obama for not acting, but I now find myself in the weird position of questioning his decision to act, without doing it wholeheartedly or addressing the whole problem. But in the end, we are all Americans, and we all want our president to succeed in protecting the American people. I’m just not sure he’s laid out a plan to do it.