Shock and awe didn’t work, so what will overcome ISIL?

Beating back ISIL relies on the cooperation of a range of regional forces that have, so far, shown little inclination to cooperate with one another – or with the US, writes Tony Karon

ISIL forces in Raqqa will be targeted by the US-led coalition, but not like the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo: Raqqa Media Center / AP
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Hours before Barack Obama last week told America of his plan for a limited war against ISIL, former vice president Dick Cheney was rallying conservatives to turn back the clock. Having met with congressional Republicans to urge them to press Mr Obama for tougher action, Mr Cheney addressed a conservative think tank and blamed the rapidly multiplying crop of global crises on the current administration’s aversion to using military force.

Mr Cheney complained that Mr Obama was a reluctant global emperor, and this was the reason for America’s receding dominance. He hailed that US-led post-Second World War global order as “one of the supreme achievements of human history”, noting that it was enabled primarily by “American military superiority”. We know, of course, that the US spends more on its military every year than the combined budgets of the next 10 biggest military spenders, and that it maintains more than 600 military bases in more than 38 countries. Without that military superiority, warned Mr Cheney, “we would be just one more nation with good intentions and strong opinions”.

The strategy to combat ISIL announced hours later by Mr Obama was a far cry from the “shock and awe” of the Bush administration’s headlong charge into Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Obama cited the largely remote US involvement in counter-terror operations by allies on the ground in Somalia and Yemen as the models for his anti-ISIL campaign, and repeatedly assured the American public that there would be no US ground forces deployed. The campaign would depend largely on the willingness and ability of Arab ground forces to clear the insurgents out of areas where their grip was shaken by US air power. That’s exactly the sort of reluctance to unleash the full brunt of American firepower that Mr Cheney said lay at the heart of the expanding global security crisis that Pope Francis on Friday warned was, in effect, a “piecemeal World War III”.

ISIL is one example of the morbid symptoms that have followed the collapse of Pax Americana in the Middle East: ISIL has emerged in the vacuum created by America’s retreat from Iraq, the gradual collapse of the Syrian state, the wider regional sectarian war and the aftershocks of the counter-revolution that followed the Arab Spring.

Beating back ISIL effectively relies on the cooperation of a range of regional forces that have, so far, shown little inclination to cooperate with one another – or with the US when their tactics diverge.

If Mr Obama’s declaration of limited war sounded a little unconvincing, it fits with a theme: the days when US megaphone diplomacy might prompt an adversary to think twice are over, if Russia’s actions in Ukraine are anything to go by.

From Moscow’s point of view, the US forced a weakened Russia to resentfully accept Nato’s expansion into its former precincts after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today’s stronger Russia is now simply pushing back, knowing full well that the US has no appetite for military confrontation on Russia’s doorstep.

Even the weapon of sanctions seems to be exhausting its effect, with Moscow unmoved by economic penalties imposed by the West and, as if to make a point, moving to resume economic ties with Iran.

European Nato countries remain reluctant to seek confrontation with Russia, while China is increasingly assertive on its territorial claims in its immediate neighbourhood, willing to challenge and test how far the US is prepared to go in projecting its influence. Most of Latin America, where US writ once ran deep, now follows an independent foreign policy of a sort the US would not have tolerated three decades ago.

For Dick Cheney, all of this is the fault of Barack Obama. He sneeringly quoted the president’s remark: “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed”, only to knock it down as “one sample from a whole collection of such sayings that seem to regard American influence as a problem to be solved in the world, rather than a solution to be offered”.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that Mr Cheney is loath to recognise that his preferred alternative – massive displays of American firepower – failed to achieve the desired results in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only did the US fail to impose its will in either country despite deploying a total of 2.5 million soldiers in both wars and spending upwards of $1 trillion, but that failure in itself weakened the power of America’s military deterrent. Nobody knows better than the US soldiers and officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan how little America’s overwhelming advantage in firepower meant when it came to shaping political outcomes.

Mr Cheney’s administration used that firepower and failed. The US military could scatter the enemy in both countries, but could not remake the political landscape in either to favour America and its allies.

As a result of those misadventures, not only are adversaries elsewhere less fearful of US military power, but the military itself is broken – overstretched, understaffed and underfunded, as it continues to absorb the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq. And the US economy is no longer able to support open-ended expeditionary warfare at the same level.

The former vice president and other hawkish critics say the administration’s failure to take military action against the Assad regime in Syria, as well as its restraint in getting involved in Libya and caution in responding to Russia in Ukraine, reflect Mr Obama’s lack of faith in American military power.

What is curious about that charge is that in each of those instances, Mr Obama was not only following his own instincts, but also those of the joint chiefs of staff. It appears that America’s military leadership doesn’t share Mr Cheney’s faith in the unleashing of American power as the answer to rising global security challenges. After all, they’ve seen it tried – and fail.

Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in international affairs at the New School in New York