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MODERATOR: Today's meeting is one is a series of meetings called the "What to Do About,"
in this case�in today's case ISIS. This meeting is designed to be a little different
from our usual Council on Foreign Relations meetings, in that we are loosely simulating
a National Security Council meeting. As the national security advisor, I will try and
interrupt frequently. I will try and ask a lot of questions so we can discern a matter
of answers so that we might be able to put a policy prescription before the president.
After all, that's our job on the National Security Council.
So the way we'll structure this is that we will begin with�I will begin with what I
believe to be the current U.S. policy vis-a-vis ISIS. We will turn as a group to discuss what
we believe the policy to be and the way it is working. We will expand it to a conversation
about the strategic interests of the United States and the region, and then finally we
will try and develop some policy options. Assuming that we don't have consensus and
that these distinguished panelists have recommendations for the president, we will try and hammer
out what those are. And like any typical NSC meeting, I expect
it to end inconclusively and resolve that we need more meetings to come up with a new
policy. So let me begin with a brief scene-setter
to get the ball rolling, and I will then turn to our distinguished guests and introduce
them as I pose a question to them. Our ISIS policy seems to begin with Iraq first and
then Syria. Let's start with Iraq. Our policy seems to be that we support the Iraqi central
government and we encourage them, especially through the departure of Prime Minister Maliki,
to have an inclusive government. But the heart of our policy seems to be military
airstrikes upon ISIS, apparently to help the peshmerga on the ground and also the Iraqi
security forces in the ground part of this particular campaign. The U.S. is of course
engaged in striking military targets today and we should explore whether we need more,
what that means and whether that should be expanded, perhaps beyond the advisory role
that our U.S. servicemen and women are in now, and whether we perhaps should even commit
more ground troops�or ground troops to the effort.
Finally, the state of the Iraqi security forces is unclear. In many cases some of their success
is at least in part attributed to the Shiite militias operating across the region. We should
discuss whether we think we are winning today, and ultimately whether U.S. interests are
being served when apparently, if we believe it to be true, that the U.S. is, as BOOT has
put it in an article, being the air force for the Iraqi Shiite militiamen.
Finally, we need to discuss what our posture should be vis-a-vis the Kurds. They are very
frustrated that they haven't received arms directly from the United States and they are
angry about our policy that everything should be done by, with and through the central government
in Baghdad. And finally, we'll turn to Syria. We've hit
some targets there but our policy is ostensibly to arm the moderate rebels so that they may
become more of a fighting force, to force a stalemate in Syria so that eventually we'll
be able to get to peace talks. And then as I understand our policy to be, we will then
insist on the departure of Assad. We need to discuss also whether in our campaign
to defeat ISIS, whether Assad must go, or whether we need to make greater common cause
with him as we move forward on the campaign. Janine, let me start with you. You are a senior
fellow for defense policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations. You are a former pilot
and Air Force officer. When you were deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration,
you were charged with reviewing strategic plans and military contingency plans.
As recently as August, you wrote that America has no policy to stop ISIS. Do you still believe
that, and can you give us some sense of what is happening on the ground today? Is our policy
working, and are we making progress against ISIS?
DAVIDSON: Well, thank you for presiding and for the overview. I think you pretty much
get the outlines of what's happening pretty much correct. I think what is happening now
is that there is a recognition that there is no short-term, there is no purely military
and there is no purely United States approach to this that is going to solve it, that is
going to win, that is going to defeat ISIS. So, what we have is a�we have is a policy
to defeat ISIS, but we have actions that have been sort of slow. So we may have missed a
few windows actually. We can get to that a little bit later, but to the extent that we
need to arm a moderate rebel force in Syria, where are they? Where - what�what's left?
On the military side, there�I think that the outlines of the military strategy is about
right for the Iraq peace , but it is a bit of a Rubik's Cube, because you can't just
address the Iraq issue. You have to address the ISIS issue, which is a cross-border issue,
and that's what I meant originally to say�when I said we don't have a strategy against ISIS.
We have an Iraq strategy. We don't have much of a Syria strategy.
MODERATOR: Well, let me�let me press you on that a little bit. As an Air Force officer,
is the air�is the air campaign working? DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, the air campaign is
working to the extent that it's not going to solve the problem. It is necessary, but
not sufficient. The air campaign is necessary but not sufficient, just like military action
in general is necessary, but not sufficient. What I mean by that, is it is very clear that
compared to last summer, when we had this lightning sweep across Iraq of ISIS, that
kind of�that kind of activity has been put in a box. Airstrikes can suppress that. They
aren't�they�they aren't able to mass forces and do what they need to do to continue to
take territory, so they've�it's like a Band-Aid on a problem.
To get the next step, however, in a military way, you're going to have to go into the cities,
and that's where airpower is a�is a lot less definitive. You can't win wars with airpower
alone. MODERATOR: Well so, let's talk a little bit
about that. Max is a distinguished author and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations. You've been a scholar on counterinsurgency activities and terrorism in generally. From
some of your writings you seem to be a skeptic of the air campaign. You wrote very recently
that we are serving as Iran's air force, as the individuals on the ground apparently doing
most of the heavy lifting are the Shiite militia forces, apparently armed and trained by Iran.
Can you give us a sense of whether you believe the current policy of airstrikes is working,
or are we ultimately employing a self-defeating policy by enabling Iran to exercise still
more influence in Iraq? BOOT: Well, if the objective is to increase
the Iranian stranglehold on Iraq, then I would say the policy is working brilliantly. But
I would question whether that should be our in fact our policy. And in fact, I think we
need to widen the aperture a little bit when we're�because I think one of the issues
here is that the administration has been so narrowly focused on trying to combat ISIS,
it has lost sight of the bigger picture, which is that if we can push ISIS out of Iraq, and
theoretically maybe we are on a trajectory where that might be possible by the end of
the year, you know, knock on wood, fingers crossed, et cetera, but even if we are able
to do that, if the price of doing that is to deliver Iraq into the hands of the Iranian
Quds force, that is a poor bargain to my mind. So what we really actually need is a strategy
that is not just counter-ISIS, but counter-radicalism and extremism throughout the Middle East of
both the Sunni and the Shiite persuasion, and we should not be losing sight of the bigger
picture here, as in fact I think we are doing, because right now, you know, we are bombing
certainly. But if you look at, for example what is happening
in Tikrit, maybe it's the case that Iraqi forces have taken Tikrit. Who knows? They've
claimed victory a number of times in the past. But let's say that's true. I mean, you have
got to be�you got to be pretty credulous if you think that the Iraqi forces that are
taking Tikrit are actually the Iraqi army forces.
And leaving aside the fact that a lot of the Iraqi army forces are probably affiliated
with Abad (ph) organization and other militia groups to begin with, the reality is, I mean
from everything I have read, the vast preponderance of those forces belong to various Shiite militias,
which basically report to General Qasem Soleimani (ph), who is now the most powerful man in
Iraq, in spite of actually not being Iraqi. He is, you know, the head of the Iranian Quds
force and I think we need to be extremely careful about empowering bad guys like General
Soleimani as the price of trying to push back ISIS in Iraq.
And that's, by the way, just in Iraq. I don't think we have any policy in Syria. I don't
think there's the remotest hope in hell that we are going to push ISIS out of anywhere
in Syria on the current trajectory. In fact, as far as I know, they have been expanding
their area of control since we started bombing them last summer, so.
MODERATOR: But Max, so we'll definitely in the course of the NSC meeting here get to
options towards the end, but am I hearing that you would pause...
BOOT: Sorry, I'm getting more prescriptive than descriptive, sorry.
MODERATOR: No, it's fine. I'm�I'm going to ask you a prescriptive question. Would
you pause the bombing, because apparently in your mind it is only benefiting Iran, and
wait until we have either retrained up the Iraqi security forces so that they can play
the lead, which you now contend is being led by Qasem Soleimani (ph)?
BOOT: I mean, I'm not sure that we ought to stop all the bombing. To the extent that the
bombing is necessary to keep ISIS from advancing and to keep it in check. I think it may make
sense. And especially if we are�if we have good targets that we are actually servicing,
it may make sense. I just don't think we ought to be running close air support for an Iranian-directed
offensive. That's what we should not be doing. And what we really ought to be focusing on,
if we can get this�when we get into the more options side of the meeting, is we really
ought to be focusing on building up indigenous Sunni forces that will oppose ISIS.
MODERATOR: Audrey, as a distinguished professor of international relations at George Mason
University and author of "How Terrorism Ends," you've made a great contribution to our understanding
of terrorism. You've most recently published an essay in this month's Foreign Affairs,
where you cautioned policy makers that ISIS is not al-Qaida. You wrote that it is a pseudostate
led by a conventional army. Can you address this and what it means for
our current policy, and what policy might flow from it?
CRONIN: Sure. Well, there are really two different questions there. One is specifically about
ISIS and the fact that the way we have treated ISIS since it arose is as if it was just the
new form of Al Qaida. And so, therefore we've turned our very elaborate counterterrorism
strategy and policy in the direction of ISIS, and tried to apply the same kinds of tools
that we've used for counterterrorism to ISIS. And they don't fit, because counterterrorism
against Al Qaida was in part aimed at trying to undermine Al Qaida's narrative, and Al
Qaida was very concerned about mobilizing forces in order to have that narrative attractive
to the Ummah . Whereas ISIS has a very different argument, different narrative, and
a different set of ways of going about it. And that is that they want to show brutality,
they want to show strength, they want to show power.
So when the United States is focused on the brutality that ISIS carries out, they are
actually strengthening ISIS, because ISIS wants to be considered to be intimidating.
So, I don't think counterterrorism as a broad overall strategy or policy for the United
States works well with ISIS. I also don't think that counterinsurgency is the right
strategy or policy. Counterinsurgency depends upon having a very
powerful, and to some degree, in control of a territory government. The government in
Baghdad has undermined its own credibility, and to some degree, I believe its legitimacy,
and what I see happening in Iraq is more of a civil war than an insurgency.
And so, you know, one of the developments that you did not mention, is that the�what
the Iranian Shiite forces, who are called the popular mobilization forces by many Iraqis,
are actually wanting the United States to step back so that they can take a bigger role.
And this is causing a problem for the current Baghdad government, because they want to win
and it doesn't�it's not always clear exactly whether it matters who carries out the actions
on their behalf. So, counterinsurgency is the wrong strategy
too. We have a tendency to think about Iraq as if we were still there in occupation. We
spent a lot of resources and�and lost a lot of lives. There were a lot of sunk costs
in that way of thinking about Iraq, but that Iraq is not the Iraq of today. The Iraq of
2006 is very different than the Iraq of today. So I would say that the best policy with respect
to ISIS, is containing their current advance, excuse me, but also thinking about American
interests in a broader sense. I mean, we've�we've been talking a lot about policies and operations
and we're not actually thinking about what are American interests in the region? Because
you can't decide how exactly to respond to ISIS, or how exactly to respond to Syria,
or how exactly to respond to Iraq, or indeed whether airstrikes are the right means, unless
you actually think about what it is that the United States should try to accomplish within
the region. MODERATOR: All right, well, let's�let's
drill down on that. What are the U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East right now?
CRONIN: Well, I think there are four. Others would disagree but this is where my thinking
comes from. The first is that the United States should protect its�its homeland and its
people, its citizens. The second is that the United States should protect its allies. The
third is stability within the region. I think that is an interest for the United States.
If the region is�has its wheels flying off, it's going to destabilize the whole world.
And then finally, and I would put it forth now because of the change in the degree to
which the United States is dependent upon energy from the region, but nonetheless, the
fourth major interest is global access to energy sources. So with those as the main
interest, I think developing our policy within the region becomes a little bit easier and
more clear. And�and our strategy it's�it's a broader strategy that has many layers and
many players. MODERATOR: But, your article and�and your
writings about Al Qaida, is ISIS defeatable? CRONIN: Of course, yes. Well, I personally
believe that it's likely to be defeated by the turn away from support of the extreme
ideology that ISIS represents, by many of the Sunni and Baathists and sort of tribal
factions that are currently aligned with ISIS. I mean, remember that ISIS didn't come into
Iraq without help. Many of the people who were aligned with us
during the surge are the ones who are actually leading ISIS's military operations.
MODERATOR: Yes. CRONIN: And that's a bitter reality, and that's
what also I think makes it not a counterinsurgency, because if you have the very forces that we�that
we were working with before supporting ISIS now, that tells you that they feel that there
is nowhere else to turn. MODERATOR: Well, let's�we are definitely
going to get back to this counterinsurgency issue, but Max, let me turn to you. You wrote
a Wall Street Journal editorial recently about the president's Mideast policy. I wonder if
you might tell us if you agree with Audrey's prescriptions of what our strategic interests
are in the region. Or which ones would you add or subtract?
BOOT: Probably broadly I agree with the way Audrey put it, but I would say that there
our�there is an overriding interest which goes back to�and I am going now�I'm going
to speak well of a president I don't normally speak well of, Jimmy Carter, going back to
the good old Carter doctrine, which you may remember from 1979, 1980. The reaction to
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis was to enunciate this
doctrine that we were not going to allow any hostile power to dominate the Persian Gulf
region. At that time, we envisioned that hostile power
probably being the Soviet Union, but today I think it applies equally well to Iran, and
we should certainly not be allowing Iran to try to dominate the region, as they are well
on their way to doing with proxies in control in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and now in�in
much of Yemen as well. There is an Iranian power grab going on, which
I think we need to oppose at the same time as we oppose the�power grab by jihadist
groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, and I think the important thing to keep in mind
is that these extremists really feed off of one another. And this is part of the reason
why our current policy is so incredibly self-defeating, because in the eyes of the region, we seem
to be aligning ourselves with Iran, and Iran seems to be the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition,
which is literally true in the case of on-the-ground operations, for example, in Tikrit, where
Iranian directed forces are in the lead. Well what do Sunnis think when they see this?
They go shrieking in horror and it drives them into the arms of ISIS, which is the point
that Audrey was making about how there are a lot of our former awakening allies, there
is a lot of former Baathists who are in league now with ISIS because they essentially see
ISIS as�not because they necessarily love ISIS or its ideological program, but because
they see ISIS as the lesser evil which protects them from Iranian domination and the kinds
of abuses that Iran and its allies inflict upon Sunni communities.
So, this is to, you know�to the extent that we are seen as this furthering this Iranian
power grab, it's striving Sunnis into the arms of the�of extremists like ISIS. And
those two extremes are the Quds force on one hand and ISIS on the other. They feed off
of each other. The more power one gets in their own community, the more power the other
one gets in their community. MODERATOR: So, just to follow up on the Iran
question. We, the administration, the United States has had a policy of trying to arm some
of our allies, especially the Gulf Arabs around the world. Notwithstanding the nuclear negotiations,
we generally tried to at least diplomatically oppose Iran. But what more should the United
States be doing to oppose Iran's, as you would say, malign influence around the region?
BOOT: Well, certainly if you talk to our allies in the region, whether our allies in Israel
or in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, they would not agree with that assessment that
we were trying to oppose Iranian designs. They see us basically laying down for an Iranian
power grab, because we don't want to mess up the nuclear negotiations going on now in
Geneva. And I think if we were serious about opposing
Iranian designs, we should have a counter-Iran strategy. That should be not just the counter-ISIS
strategy but a counter-Iran strategy. We are sort of being dragged willy-nilly into an
anti-Iran intervention in Yemen, because of what the Saudis and Egyptians are doing, but
that's not being driven by us. I mean, you heard General Austin, the commander
of CENTCOM, testify that he was barely given any heads up before the Saudis started bombing
Yemen. They�they are these Sunni states are clearly taking the law into their own
hands, trying to deal with Iran as best they can, because they see this complete power
vacuum on the U.S. side. They don't see us mobilizing this traditional anti-Iran alliance,
which we have been the leader of ever since 1979.
And I think, we need to reinvigorate that and not be so sanguine about the fact that
Iranian allies have essentially taken over in, as I mentioned, not only in Beirut but
now in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as well. And I think we need a strategy to empower our
local allies to try to push back against Iranian designs and to do some of the things that
we did, for example, in 2007, 2008 during the surge in Iraq, pretty successfully to
use our�especially our intelligence assets, as well as some of our special operations
assets to try to surface Iranian designs, to target Iranian agents and to neutralize
their influence to the greatest extent possible. I don't see us even trying to do that right
now. MODERATOR: Janine, I want to get your view.
We do have a�the United States does have a coalition; Jordan and the UAE among others
have supported us militarily. Could you address a little bit about our standing in the region
and whether we need a more aggressive diplomatic strategy to buttress the military strategy
for ISIS? DAVIDSON: I think the diplomatic and the military
things are related, and I think that also�that Max, you know, he gets the�the outlines
of the Iran problem right. The�but the conundrum for America here is�is how to amp up our
involvement to fill that vacuum and push back against Iran, but not go so far, especially
and also with respect to ISIS, as to then turn this problem that isn't totally about
us, more about us, right, which is also what Audrey kind of gets into.
I mean, you know, we're all focused on ISIS, and they are nasty and their violent and they
are brutal and they offend our humanity, but they are not an existential threat to us,
right? I mean, Iran is�is a big threat. But we could make the ISIS threat more if
a problem for us, we're talking about U.S. interests, by overreacting, by taking the
fight completely into our own hands, and then we are once again, you know, occupying and
invading and�in the region, which ends up fueling the narrative that ISIS has.
And so, I think this is, unfortunately there are few good options with respect to what
America should do. I mean, you can say�we can come up with a strategy for what needs
to be done to�to defeat ISIS over the long run, but that isn't the same thing as what
America needs to do in the region. And so, to your point about building the coalition.
So, airstrikes create pressure on ISIS and they hold them in so that we can then deal
with some of the them political coalition-building that needs to be done, building the regional
security forces, trying to un-farkle (ph) the problem vis-a-vis who are you empowering
more, the�the Shia�the Iranian-supported Shia militias, or the Sunnis that we're trying
to get back in the tent that we lost. And all of that has to happen in a combination
of military... MODERATOR: Am I hearing a rough consensus
here, that most of you believe Iran's influence in the region is a greater threat than ISIS
is? Audrey, do you want to... CRONIN: Well, I would only say that one of
the reasons why Iran has gained influence is as a direct result of American policy over
the last 12 years or so. So I think we deserve to have a certain amount of humility, when
it comes to naming Iran now as the broadest threat.
I�I think that Iran and ISIS are both threats, but I think we're operating at different levels
of a kind of a chessboard, if you will. I mean, we have got a global level, where you've
got the Iranian nuclear talks and some aspects of transnational terrorism. You've got a regional
level, where you've got the Saudis and the Arab coalition and the Iranians, and there's
a lot of jockeying going on between the two. I agree with Max that that is a�a serious
concern. And then, at the local level, you've got Yemen,
you've got Syria, you've got Iraq. These are conflicts that have�you know, these are
not completely discernible levels that are not intertwined. But if you think about the
fact that these are interests that occur at those levels, not every player plays at every
level. So, you know, the United States plays at all three levels. There are other players
that also play at two or three of the levels. Let me just observe that you are not going
to solve the problem in Syria, for example, without Russia. And you're going to be deluding
yourself if you think that the future of Iraq is going to leave aside any influence from
Iran. These are(inaudible) political questions. And so, getting back to your question, what
should the United States be doing? I think it needs to be able to walk and chew gum at
the same time. It needs to have a complicated strategy that keeps those interests that I
mentioned at the beginning at the heart of it.
MODERATOR: Okay, let's�let's tackle Syria here. We've�we've got about five minutes
and then we are going to do something quite novel. We are going to handle Syria in five
minutes... (CROSSTALK)
MODERATOR: ... we're�we're going to do something quite novel for a National Security Council
meeting. In about 15 minutes, we're going to take questions from the audience. So, please
get your questions ready. Let's talk a little bit about Syria. Max,
is it absolutely necessary that Assad be deposed for us to have a successful Mideast strategy?
BOOT: Yes. MODERATOR: Why? What�what is the�why is
it that to defeat ISIS we have to get rid of Assad?
BOOT: Well it's because of this. Well, A, as I said, I don't think that defeating ISIS
should be our only objective. We need to defeat Iran as well, and Assad is a pawn of Iran.
But also, the�the point that I made earlier, there is a dynamic where the more that Iranian-backed
Shiite extremists are seen to be in control of these countries, the more that Sunnis will
flock to groups like ISIS. There is no way to defeat ISIS without also
defeating Assad, and what we're trying to do right now, there's no way in hell it's
going to work because what we are doing is essentially we are trying to say to the free
Syrian army, okay, guys, sign up with us, go fight against ISIS, but don't fight against
Assad. And we are not going to do anything to protect you, your homes and your loved
ones from Assad, whose air force is dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhoods right now.
Because we don't care about Assad, because de facto the U.S. has reversed its policy
and we have gone from calling for Assad's overthrow to essentially supporting his continuation
in power. MODERATOR: Well, so, so...
(CROSSTALK) BOOT: ... and we want Syrians who hate Assad
to ignore him, this guy who has killed over 200,000 of his countrymen and has been responsible
for forcing at least half the population to leave their homes. And we want them to concentrate
on the only group that we care about in�in Syria, which is ISIS. That dog ain't going
to hunt. MODERATOR: Let�let me just drill down one
more time on this. I agree that we�our policy has been that we need to remove Assad, even
notwithstanding some of Secretary Kerry's comments in recent weeks. But...
BOOT: Make sure you put that in the past tense. Our policy had been for a while to remove
Assad and no longer is. MODERATOR: It had been and doesn't seem to
be now. BOOT: Yeah.
MODERATOR: ISIS has come on the scene. At one point, we were going�we were going to
arm the Syrian rebels, which is something I'm going to get to in a second. But tell
me again just what is the straight line between�you know, if the aim is to defeat ISIS, why do
we have to take out Assad to do that? BOOT: Well, because I think as long as Assad
and his�and his Iranian backers are on the scene destroying Sunni neighborhoods that
Sunnis will continue to look to the al-Nusra Front and ISIS for protection. The only way
you're going to defeat those jihadist organizations is by decoupling them from their Sunni base
of support, which is what we did so successfully in Iraq in 2007, 2008, when we turned the
Sunni tribes against AQI, the predecessor organization of�of ISIS.
Right now, the dynamic which exists in both Iraq and Syria is that Sunnis feel under assault
by Iranian proxies. As long as that is the case, you're not going to succeed in decoupling
them from ISIS or the al-Nusra front. All�so, you're just feeding the cycle of violence.
And there's not�there's not�I should hasten to add, there is not an easy straight line
from let's overthrow Assad and then two days later ISIS will be overthrown. Obviously,
if you overthrow Assad, there is also the potential that you are creating a power vacuum
that ISIS can come into. I mean, I would be the first to admit, there is no easy way to
fix the situation in Syria. If there ever was, we should have taken action, as General
Petraeus, when he was CIA director, advocated a massive program of support for the Free
Syrian Army back in 2012, when there was a much greater chance of success.
But right now, the Free Syrian Army, which I think was our best bet all along, has been
decimated because it has been squeezed by both sides, by both the Assad as well as the
ISIS, Nusra Front jihadist forces so there is very little left. So, I'm not even sure
that Syria can survive as a unitary country. And I think if there is going to be any hope
for the long term in Syria, it would have to involve getting rid of Assad and having
some kind of large-scale, multinational peacekeeping force in there. But it is hard for me to imagine�well,
how that would actually work in practice. So, I don't have a whole heck of a lot of
hope for the�you know, the near-term in Syria. I don't have a magic policy prescription,
but I'm just observing that we're�I don't think we can ignore Assad and try to go after
ISIS. That strategy just has not worked and will that work.
MODERATOR: OK. Janine, going after Assad, would that�you seem to worry a little while
ago that if we got too involved in the region, that would be ultimately detrimental to U.S.
interests. Trying to topple Assad, should that still be our aim and our counter-ISIS
strategy, or would that be going too far? DAVIDSON: I mean, I�I agree that Assad is
a criminal and that he's, you know, and that he doesn't deserve to be in control in Syria.
That said, you know, if there is one thing the last 10 years is�should have taught
us, it is that you can't just pop the top on these countries and expect magic to happen
afterwards. And so, you have to be very careful, especially if it is going to be us, you know,
toppling Assad. About, you know, are you�if you could have
a massive international multilateral�multinational peacekeeping force in there that is, you know,
governing the country, a la, you know, the Balkans, you know, but could we do that? I'm
not�I'm not so sure. But I also do agree that we�that we missed some windows. 2012,
I mean, the Free Syrian Army, where are they? And everybody in that region is making a calculation
on a day-to-day basis about how to survive. And to the extent that ISIS was able to grow
in Iraq and then through into Syria because of, in Iraq, Maliki, and in Syria, Assad,
ostracizing the�the Sunni population, that�that is going to continue to be the problem. So
the Sunnis are the�the key to defeating ISIS.
And let's just say one more thing about ISIS. I don't know if Audrey will agree with this
or not, but, you know, ISIS is, I believe, a quasi-state. They're not a terrorist group,
they are not an insurgency group, but they are a lousy state. Right? And they�they
will not succeed in�in their large-scale caliphate as long as they are unable to continue
to recruit. So we take a long-term approach to ISIS and
we calm down a little bit and we think about what our interests are in the region. That
problem�I'm not going to say it will take care of itself, but it is definitely a state
that is not going to be able to continue to do what it needs to do, and to continue�it
has to keep growing, it has to keep generating taxes in order to do what it needs to do,
and it is not going to be able to keep doing that.
MODERATOR: Audrey, did you want�do you want to respond to that?
CRONIN: Generally I agree with that, yes. I think it is a very long-term process, though,
because ISIS as a pseudo-state has been very good at using extortion and, you know, channeling
black market oil, and, you know, having its own forms of self-sustainment. And they're
also very good at attracting foreign fighters and what I would call migrants, females�females
who go there to be brides and are not actually fighting once they get there.
But there are a lot of people who are coming from the West, who are flooding into Syria
and Iraq. To some degree we've begun to manage that much better with the closing of the border
by the Turks. But ISIS is a long-term problem. I don't think they are going to be effective
at governing their pseudo-state, and that's the hope in the longer term.
But if the United States thinks that this is all about us fighting ISIS, we're leaving
out all of the other major players in the region, and we are also being extremely solipsistic,
because there are a lot of other people�there is no other government in the world that supports
ISIS or the Islamic State. So to the degree that we are responding without thinking about
the position of the Turks, the Russians, the other neighbors within the region, I think
we are being very foolish. And in fact, we can, if we are foolish enough,
put ourselves right into the narrative that ISIS projects, which is that they're reaching
the end days, end times, and that, you know, the Westerners, who would be the American,
the so-called infidels, are a force against more people should mobilize.
BOOT: If I could just make a comment on that. I mean, this is a point that both Audrey and
Janine have made, and yes, there is a danger of seeming to make this fight about the United
States and allowing them to posture as the adversaries of the great Satan and all that
kind of stuff. That's true. That is a danger we should keep in mind.
But keep in mind, it's really�here you're really choosing your poison, because if we
are not in there actively opposing ISIS�which we have not been doing, President Obama has
tried to pull back from the Middle East over the course of his presidency�the result
of that is to create a power vacuum which they then fill.
And ISIS is so successful right now in part because they've been successful in the past.
They've created this actual caliphate, unlike Al Qaida. They actually control territories.
Everybody is saying they are now more or less a state. And a lot of their aura, a lot of
the attractiveness they have for recruits, the reason why they are attracting 1,000 foreign
recruits a month or something like that, is because they actually do control the territory.
And if they were suddenly to lose control of that territory, that would be the biggest
blow they could possibly suffer. Far more significant than any kind of counter-radicalization
things we are doing on Twitter or anywhere else, what will destroy their appeal is if
they cease to control territory and their�and their pretensions to be this modern-day caliphate
are exposed... (CROSSTALK)
MODERATOR: But if... BOOT: ... that's ultimately the way to�so
in other words, the way to defeat ISIS is pretty simple, is, you've got to defeat ISIS.
MODERATOR: Okay, so�but in Syria, we all agree that the efforts to arm the so-called
moderate opposition have not been successful. I think we all agree.
CRONIN: I think that it's basically a two-sided fight now. It's between the Assad government�you
know, it's either death by Assad or join ISIS for most people who live.
MODERATOR: So we... BOOT: Although, keep�keep in mind that and
ISIS and Assad have not been fighting that directly against one another that much. They
have actually been observing more or less a de facto�not complete but de facto ceasefire
because ISIS concentrates on controlling the Sunni regions and Assad has a stake in building
up ISIS because then he can say, look, it's either me or ISIS, and that�that's the way
that he gets the West on board with him. CRONIN: Yes, but the one thing I would disagree
with you, Max, is that I don't think it was the power vacuum by the United States that
enabled ISIS to grow. I think it was the power vacuum by the MalikI government and the fact
that they actually were taking action against their own Sunni minority...
(CROSSTALK) BOOT: Which�which occurred...
CRONIN: ... and caused their own legitimacy to be undermined.
BOOT: Right, which occurred after we pulled all of our troops out and lost all influence
in Iraq and after we refused to do anything about the burgeoning Syrian civil war, thereby
creating huge power vacuums on both sides of the border that ISIS has now expanded into.
MODERATOR: But�but just in terms of what policy options we have left, do we believe
that the moderate Syrian opposition is still viable?
Janine, can we salvage this as a policy option? Arming them, that is?
DAVIDSON: I mean, I think that�I think that in the long-term there may be some hope that
you can gather, you know, some rebel fighters back, but, I mean, we definitely missed the
more important window, like I said, back in 2012. When there, you know�there were people
quitting like crazy in Assad's army, those guys were ready to go, and where they now?
So it�it�I don't think that it is something we should necessarily give up on, but it's
definitely a much bigger mountain to climb now than it would've been.
MODERATOR: Janine, Max, all right, so this is where I think I hear a policy option there
of yes, we should be cautious about this, but that over the long term we should try
and continue to arm the Syrian rebels. BOOT: And not just�I would say not just
arm them. I think we need to do�I mean, think we need to do stuff that I and others
have been arguing we need to do since 2011, including creating a no-fly zone so that the
Assad air force can't continue to bomb civilian areas. And we need to create safe zones on
the borders with Jordan and Turkey, where the Syrian government in exile can actually
begin to govern on Syrian territory without fear of being annihilated by the�by Assad's
forces. MODERATOR: So apparently, President Obama
was against arming the Syrian rebels, in part because he didn't want to have a proxy war
in Syria, perhaps with Russia backing the Assad regime and us backing the rebels. Does
that dissuade you at all from Russia's involvement here? I think I know the answer.
(LAUGHTER) BOOT: I mean, I'm not too worried about the
Russian legions marching into Syria. I mean, the Russians to me are just...
MODERATOR: A proxy war. Does it bother you that...
BOOT: The�the Russia�it's not a proxy war with Russia. It's a proxy war with Iran.
The Russians are just a nuisance factor. I don't think they are a by�a major or decisive...
MODERATOR: We all agree we need to redouble our efforts to find and arm and train, and
perhaps give safe havens to a moderate Syrian opposition. Do we agree on that?
CRONIN: I would go along with Max on a safe haven, except that I was express it slightly
differently. I think the moderates are not really available to be armed right now. We
have to�that's going to be a rebuilding process.
MODERATOR: We've got to find them. CRONIN: If they exist, if they are not all
dead. But more important, and, or at least as important, is I think we need to seriously
ramp up our humanitarian aid for that flood of humanity that are in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey.
I think that that's more important than this two years late effort to try to arm people
that really�I mean, the CIA has been in there trying to work with moderate Syrians
for a while, so you've got this inter-agency friction between CIA and DOD and there are
not enough people there for them to work with as it is. So, we've got to rethink what it
is that were doing in those countries that border.
MODERATOR: Okay, before we go to questions from the audience, Janine, Max wrote in the
Wall Street Journal recently, Mr. Obama's launching air strikes against the Islamic
State while refusing to commit any ground troops, even though they are essential to
ensuring the success of airstrikes. Would you support the use of U.S. ground troops
in Iraq to defeat ISIS? DAVIDSON: Well, like I said, I think that
the more our ground troops�we have to be very careful. Ground troops to assist local
forces I think is helpful, training, coaching, helping plan, and there is a mushy line there.
But when we take the fight on unilaterally, that's when we make the fight about ourselves...
(CROSSTALK) MODERATOR: ... well, but it wouldn't be unilaterally.
DAVIDSON: That said, I'm not, you know, okay. Either way, but...
MODERATOR: So you would be for boots on the ground...?
(CROSSTALK) DAVIDSON: ... to the extent that it looks
like it is a U.S. fight, that will feed their narrative and we have to be careful. I know
it is uncomfortable, you know, but this is kind of the uncomfortable truth about it.
MODERATOR: You�you might take some the shackles off...
(CROSSTALK) DAVIDSON: ... I'm also�I'm not, yeah, and
I'm not as freaked out about these ground forces for various things in general. In fact,
I also agree with Audrey that if we are serious about one of our core values in the region,
which is helping civilians who are, you know, massively displaced and hurting, then we�you
have to put people on the ground to help people. And we have been hesitant to do that because
there is risk involved, but I would take risk in order to do that. And I would not be afraid
to put some forces on the ground to assist the actual combat forces that need to go into
these cities. And I'll say one more thing, which is I get
the sense from�when I hear Max talk about, you know, we need to defeat ISIS, yeah, it
needs to be defeated. But people talk about Tikrit and they talk about Mosul and that,
you know, when you take back these cities. There is a danger of catastrophic military
success here, right? You go so quickly and then you have�you
still have popped the top on this Shia-Sunni problem, which is what I think you saw happening
in Tikrit, which is why you see the U.S. holding back, right? And then the Iranians sort of
failing in their ability to do it. And now you see the U.S. going in.
So, the U.S. has a delicate balance to play to make sure that they are not supporting
the right�wrong sides, and it's not going to be easy to do that. And the best way to
create even more chaos in the region I think is to, you know, very quickly and catastrophically
overthrow Tikrit and Mosul and then have, you know, Shia militia running all about.
MODERATOR: Okay, let me�let me, before we go to questions, Max, I want to give you an
opportunity to respond to Audrey. General Petraeus has written that what we need in
Iraq is a COIN strategy, not led by U.S. troops in his estimation, but by Iraqi troops. Except
Audrey seems to say that COIN is no longer applicable here because it is not like the
uprising in Iraq in 2006, 2007. We need a different strategy that's not COINed-based.
Can you try and help us here? Why should we have a COIN strategy?
BOOT: Well, I mean, I think a COIN strategy is basically the only strategy that has any
track record of success. And it's not an easy strategy, but it's the only strategy that
has any track record of success in dealing with an enemy that is entrenched among the
people. I mean, a counterterrorist strategy, which
is their most commonly mooted alternative�not by Audrey but by others�which is just essentially
picking off individual terrorists, is not going to defeat an entrenched terrorist group.
And in this case, a conventional offensive is not going to probably succeed either, and
you're�because what will happen is that even if you can do the clear phase, even if
you can use massive firepower to clear cities like Tikrit and Mosul and push ISIS out for
the time being, at the risk of creating massive civilian casualties, you still have to be
able to do the clear and hold phase. Because, when you do the clear that�that
enables you to do the hold and build phase, and to do that you have to have forces that
are able to essentially create some kind of governance on the ground. Because if you don't
do that then, the terrorists will infiltrate right back in and you haven't really achieved
anything. And so fundamentally�I mean, the solution
to groups like ISIS is fundamentally you have to offer better governance. I mean, the reason
why ISIS was able to step into Syria and Iraq is because there wasn't any governance that
was effective in those places. The Iraqi army, for example, fell apart, because they had
been compromised by Shiite sectarians and corrupt officers and so forth, so there was
no effective counter. So the obvious counter to ISIS is to have
effective governance that can impose control 24-7 in places like Anbar province and Ninevah
province and these other places where ISIS has taken root. Now, obviously one option
to do that would be U.S. forces, which is what we did in 2007, 2008 during the surge.
There's obviously not the will to do that at this point.
I think our best bet is working with local forces. And if they are seen as legitimate,
they can then take out ISIS and replace its control with control that is more benign in
U.S. eyes. But the�so the difficulty there is we have to create those forces because
by and large they don't exist right now. There's very little of the professional Iraqi army
left, and we should certainly work with the small core that's left, the Iraqi Special
Operations Forces and so forth. But by and large, most of the fighting is
being done by Shiite militias who have no credibility in Sunni areas and cannot do�cannot
execute an effective COIN strategy if their lives depended on it because they are seen
as implacable enemies of the local people. So we�what we need to be doing is mobilizing
the local Sunnis into an anti-ISIS coalition. Once that happens, if you can recreate awakening
(ph)-type forces then they can actually do the counterinsurgency type operations with
a good deal of credibility. MODERATOR: Okay, there are a host of issues
we weren't able to get to. Maybe we'll get to them in Q and A, especially what to do
about Turkey and what about ISIS and Libya. But we will return to that if we have a chance.
But now we invite the audience members to join in the discussion. Please wait for the
microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and
keep questions and comments concise so we can allow as many attendees as possible to
speak. So, I see two right here. Let's do the lady in the green, and then the gentleman
right there in front of her. QUESTION: Hi, I'm Trudy Reuben from the
Philadelphia Inquirer , I'm also a member. The premise seems to be that Iraq is in better
shape than Syria. But as Max Boot said, you would need to train tribal forces in order
to have forces on the ground. There's no sign in Baghdad that that's going to happen. The
money is not being put aside. So, my question is, why do we think that there
would be any offensive even in the coming year in Iraq that could take back Mosul? The
Iraqi army won't be ready, the tribal forces won't rise because they don't trust the central
government, and Shia can't and shouldn't do it.
And if that's the case, are we going to see ISIS in its state two years from now with
nothing much changed, and what would be the consequences of that?
MODERATOR: Janine, do you want to take that? DAVIDSON: You know, it's interesting because
recently I was at an event where Major General, retired Iraqi Jabouri (ph), who had been the
so-called mayor of Khalifar (ph) and partnered with U.S. troops for the surge, gave a talk,
and he said the Sunnis that fought with you, Americans, are ready to fight with you again.
They would�they could�but they cannot be convinced until the Iraqi government makes
some assurances and gets rid of de-Baathification, which is still in effect and on the books
in many cases in Iraq, which is oh, by the way, probably original sin of the American
invasion. And then the de-militarization. But he, you know�your point is actually
right on. I mean, you�the key to defeating ISIS comes with the Sunnis. They have decided,
especially in Iraq, that ISIS is the lesser of two evils, which they decided back in 2005
Al Qaida in Iraq was, until they were able to rise up against them.
So, there is a potential there, but it's�the thing that we, I think, are forgetting is
what we continue forget about COIN. COIN comes in lots of flavors and sizes and it isn't
always just exactly what it looked like in 2007. It is counterinsurgency, and to the
effect that the people in Iraq feel like this civil war has insurgency-like elements, meaning
people are embedded among the people, the fighters are embedded, then there are counterinsurgency-like
approaches. But the thing that we keep forgetting is the
political element here, right? I mean, you can govern with a heavy hand, with military
troops in a city and provide security to the people and economic development and all those
other lines of operation that you read in the counterinsurgency handbook, but if the
leader of Iraq, like Maliki did, continues to ostracize and crack down on one part of
the population, you're never going to get there. You've got a massive hole in your bucket.
BOOT: I could just emphasize what Janine just said because I violently agree that the decisive
line of operations has to be political. And essentially in order to get the Sunnis to
fight against ISIS, which is the only way you're going to defeat ISIS, because the Sunnis
are the center of gravity in this operation, the only way you're going to do it is to offer
them a better political deal. And you're not going to do it if you tell
them, okay, please help us fight ISIS, risk your necks and then we are going to leave
again, as we did in 2011. And you're going to have to deal with these Shiite sectarians
in Baghdad. That's not going to work. I mean, you have to basically, and this is
going to be very difficult to do, but this is what we have to do is I think we have to
engineer some kind of deal that guarantees some degree of Sunni autonomy, perhaps similar
to the kind of set-up that the Kurds already have in the KRG, probably guaranteed with
American defense guarantees in the future, that we will station troops there or nearby,
maybe in the KRG, maybe in Anbar, and we will defend Sunni rights and stand as guarantors
of their freedom. And if that were the case, I think you might
see the current situation reversing pretty quickly, as you did in 2007, 2008. But you've
got to give the Sunnis a reason to fight against ISIS, and right now they don't have it.
CRONIN: I actually think you have nailed the situation reasonably well, Trudy, and I agree
with much of what is been said. The only thing I would disagree with is that if there is
a political deal, it has got to be a political deal that is offered by the Iraqi government,
not by the United States, because if we have learned anything, it is that the United States
does not have either the power or the consensus to single-handedly have an open-ended occupation
of Iraq. BOOT: Okay, but I am not advocating open-ended
occupation of Iraq, but remember that the Iraqi government is not really in control
of its fate right now. They are being dominated by the Iranians. So if we don't�we manage
to achieve something by getting Maliki ousted from power, which was an advance, and I think
Prime Minister Abadi is an improvement on Prime Minister Maliki, but Prime Minister
Maliki is still not the most powerful man in the country. And so, we have to serve as
a political counterweight to the dominant Iranian influence.
Otherwise, the Iranians aren't going to offer a deal to the Sunnis. Why would they?
MODERATOR: OK, let's go to our second question here and then we have another one right here
on the third row . QUESTION: Thank you. Richard Downy from
Delpha Strategic Consulting and thank you�really interesting discussion. I'd like
to touch on a point that Audrey made. And you said that we don't need a counter-ISIS
strategy, we need a counter�a Middle East strategy. And Martin Indyk of Brookings Institution
wrote a piece recently that addressed essentially, the�in order to achieve the objectives that
you mentioned, Audrey, the four objectives essentially, he said there are two ways to
do it. You either work with Iran as the dominant
power in the region, which Max essentially says we are de facto doing, or you work with
the pillar nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, to work�either one of those. And
it seems to me, I mean, my question is, do you think we are in fact, as Max suggests,
going toward this de facto relationship with Iran, or are we just doing these things badly,
all of these pieces badly? Thank you. CRONIN: Yes, should I start...
(CROSSTALK) MODERATOR: Audrey, I thought I heard�I thought
I heard your name invoked. CRONIN: Yes, you did. Well, I think that you
have identified a very key point, which is that our relationship with the region depends
upon a number of different actors. I do think that our handling of Iran has been remarkably
naive, I would say, in the last 12 years, and that we need to develop a lot more complexity
in how we look at the major powers within the region.
I do not think that the Arab coalition led by the Saudis and including, what is it, nine
other Arab states taking action in Yemen is a bad thing. I think that the fact that they
are taking that action independently and are using force and are acting as a�to some
degree a kind of military counterbalance with respect to this regional balance with Iran
is not a bad thing from the American point of view. Because if you truly believe that
stability is one of the American interests for the region, you have to have some tolerance
for people within the region developing that balance between them.
MODERATOR: Janine. DAVIDSON: It is interesting because, I agree
with what you're saying, it'`s uncomfortable, but you know, it has been our policy for years,
not just Obama, but�to support local actors to take responsibility for their region. This
is why we do security force assistance, this why we do foreign military sales. We spent
like 10 or 15 years arming up this region and helping them professionalize their militaries.
It's sort of one of those be careful what you ask for things. You want to know what
it looks like for the region to take control of their security? Well, step back and take
a look. So then, it does make you question what your
role is then. I mean, are we sideline coach, are we in there, you know, leading from the
front? I mean, what exactly, you know, is�does it look like for this strategy that we have
been focused on for a decade in the region to help them gain control of their own security?
What does it look like? BOOT: If I could just jump in quickly on the
Saudi intervention in Yemen. I am not necessarily opposed to it either. I just question whether
the Saudis actually know what they are doing, and whether, to get back to our�the counterinsurgency
question, do they have a COIN strategy or do they have a bombing strategy? At the moment,
I see a bombing strategy. They are blowing things up, which may be OK in the short term,
but how do they get from there to actually defeating the Houthis and Al Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula, and pacifying Yemen? I'm seeing a big question mark here. I'm not
really seeing the answers. I'm not sure the Saudis or the Egyptians know what the answers
are. I'm not sure they have thought this through. I am actually concerned about where this is
going. DAVIDSON: I'm sure they asked the same questions
when we invaded Iraq in 2003�do they know what they are doing?
BOOT: And they had a good point. DAVIDSON: Yes, they did.
MODERATOR: All right. This right here�and then you, and then the lady in the back, back.
QUESTION: Hello, Margaret Monroe Broozallen . I study extremist groups' online presence,
including ISIS and social media, which is everybody's favorite topic nowadays. As long
as they can use social media and other online tools to attract foreign fighters to throw
themselves into the meat grinder, they are going to be pretty hard to defeat. From what
I've observed of the U.S. and other Western governments trying to counter that messaging
online, it has been at best laughable and at worst has galvanized them, the online community,
to, you know, keep posting propaganda, et cetera.
Is there any group that has the credibility to sort of counter that online messaging?
Who is it and how would they go about it? BOOT: As I was trying to say earlier, I don't
think you're going to defeat them with online messaging, no matter how effective it is,
no matter what group it comes from. The way you end their appeal is by defeating their
ability to hold a huge chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq because that's really the
basis of their ideological appeal right now, is that they have actually created a caliphate.
If their hold on that caliphate is destroyed, I think you would see their ideological appeal
wane pretty fast. DAVIDSON: I think a lot of people focus on
social media and I think it's important. I'm not so sure that it is the exact way that
the teenager decides to join, however. I mean, they�we're talking about the patterns of
foreign fighters coming out of London, for instance, and�or England. They go in threes.
They joined with their buddies. And they're primarily are approached personally, face-to-face.
I mean, I think that the online probably helps on a greater sort of level and it freaks us
all out, and maybe there are other things happening online where they're sharing information
at a different level, but in terms of the actual recruitment of those foreign fighters
that come from Western countries especially, I mean, they're being approached individually,
face-to-face. And so my sense is that the way to counter it is actually at that local
level with some of those sorts of programs that they are developing now.
CRONIN: Well, I actually think that having a better strategy and policy with respect
to how we respond to the new media is important to degrading ISIS' attraction. I don't think
this is an either-or. I think that a key part of a broad American strategy toward ISIS,
an absolutely essential part, has to be to use private actors and individuals that are
not directly members of the U.S. government in subtle ways, NGOs.
There are a number of great organizations that are working on this but they are not
nearly well enough funded. There are also a lot of private actors who are working on
taking down ISIS's Twitter accounts. This is happening, but it isn't nearly sufficiently
well enough funded and supported through backchannels by the U.S. government. So I think that is
a key part of any kind of sophisticated U.S. strategy toward ISIS.
MODERATOR: That was good to raise. Yes, sir, right here. And you're next.
QUESTION: David Appor , IIC. Thank you very much. One�let's make two assumptions.
First assumption, let's assume that Iran is as much of a threat as any other threat in
the region. I know one or maybe two of the panelists assumed that that was so, and that
it was so obvious that we don't have enough time to argue it. But for the moment let's
just assume that is right. But let's assume one other the thing. Let's
assume that given the arc of U.S. involvement in the Middle East broadly, certainly in Iraq,
I don't see why anybody in the region would assume that the U.S. would sustain�I think
this is a point you made, actually�the U.S. would be able to sustain an occupation or
something kind of like an occupation for any even medium-term period.
Isn't the necessary implication of those two assumptions that ultimately we need�we're
seeking a partition of Iraq? Isn't that a necessary implication? And if that is a necessary
implication of those two assumptions, then does it�do we still care how Sunnis in that
small Sunni state above Baghdad would defend themselves, whether it's with or without the
generals from the region who have defected to IS? Aren't we essentially ultimately seeking
a partition of Iraq? MODERATOR: Was Vice President Biden right,
Max? BOOT: Well, in the first place, let me just
take issue with the loaded word, occupation, because of course nobody is in favor of "occupation."
But you tell me. I mean, U.S. troops have been in Kuwait since 1991. Are they occupying
Kuwait? I don't view it that way. I view them as being a stabilizing force that's enhancing
regional security. So just because we may have troops in the
area doesn't necessarily mean we are occupying. And I think there is, for example, there is
a lot to be said for a long-term U.S. military presence in the KRG where the Kurds would
love to have us, and it would be a way for us to influence events in Iraq regardless
of what the central government in Baghdad thinks.
But in terms of, you know, should we be partitioning Iraq, I don't know that a partition necessarily
is the solution. And certainly by itself it's not going to solve anything, because if ISIS
remains in control of the Sunni part of Iraq and the Quds force remains in control of the
Shiite part of Iraq, that's a problem. That's not the solution because you're basically
handing Iraqi oil wealth to Iran and you are handing the Sunni population over to ISIS.
So, I think there is an argument to be made now, as I was making before, that I think
there is something to be said for greater decentralization, greater autonomy in Iraq,
especially for the Sunni region, as a way to get the Sunnis to fight against ISIS. But
then we still have to be concerned�even if that were to be the case, we would still
have to be concerned about who governs in the Shiite region, which again, includes the
vast majority of Iraq's oil wealth. We can't simply hand that over to General Soleimani
and his proxies in Iraq. So I think, autonomy can be some kind of greater
autonomous relationship unless�and certainly we should be paying less heed to the central
government in Baghdad to the extent that it's under Iranian domination. We certainly should
not be funneling all of our military aid through them so that it can then go to help support
Shiite militias. We need to be helping the Sunnis in particular on our own, if necessary,
even if the government in Baghdad is not in support of that.
But�so I think we certainly should not�I mean, it's a complicated answer because we
should not wrap ourselves around this totem pole of Iraqi sovereignty and refuse to do
anything that undermines the "Iraqi sovereignty," which is more nominal than real at the moment.
But at the same time, we shouldn't imagine that there is some kind of magic partition
solution which will make all of our problems in Iraq go away.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Penny Star with CNS News. Given what you've said about Iran and
their domination in all of this chaos, what kind of impact would a deal with Iran, which
the Obama administration is trying to broker at this very moment, and today is the deadline,
what impact will that have if they come to some deal on this whole scenario you've spoken
about? Thank you. MODERATOR: What if there's a deal tonight
tonight, Audrey? CRONIN: Well, this is where that multilevel
game comes into play, and I think that a deal on a global level is better than the alternative
of no deal that allows the Iranians to move even more quickly to being armed with a nuclear
weapon. And I don't necessarily seeing it change�see it changing the dynamics in the
region dramatically, the dynamics at the other two levels, the regional and the local level.
So, I mean, that's my position. Other folks in�you know, up here may disagree.
But on the other question, on the question of occupation. I think there is a difference
between having troops in a place and stationed in a base, and having them in a conflict area
where they are actually carrying out operations against domestic members of the indigenous
population. That is what I personally mean by an occupation, something that is contested.
And, you know, I think that is something that would be more likely to be the case in Iraq
than as is currently the case in Kuwait. MODERATOR: Janine, would an Iran nuclear deal
that perhaps legitimizes Iran, embolden them around the region? Or would they say, well,
now we are semi-admitted back into the community of nations and we'll begin to pull back?
DAVIDSON: The thing that would embolden Iran the most and turn them into the most hostile
actor is the alternative to the deal that people are promoting, which is bombing Iran.
That sets the clock back three years at best, compared to this deal that everybody hates,
everybody loves to hate, which puts 10 to 15 years on the clock.
And so, best case scenario, or I would say least worst case scenario�all these options
are bad, it's a difficult problem�but, is that it creates some space. If there is no
deal, if�or if there is another drumbeat for bombing Iran, it's just going to make
things a lot more heated in the region. It's going to give the actors across the region
even more justification for wanting to get their own nuclear weapons. And it's just�I
mean, I think that we are playing with fire. MODERATOR: Max, is it harder to fight Iran's
malign influence if we've got a nuclear deal with them?
BOOT: Yes. Because I think it will be seen as putting the American imprimatur on the
Iranian power grab throughout the region, especially because the terms, well, A, they
are not going to announce a real deal tonight. At most what they will announce is some kind
of vague principles that�with all the hard stuff remaining to be ironed out. And the
fact that it is not been ironed out in 18 months suggests to me they may not ever reach
a deal, even on the extremely generous and liberal terms that the United States is offering
Iran. But if we were to reach some kind of deal
on the terms that have been leaked, where it would maybe somewhat constrain the Iranian
program for maybe a decade but allow them to have thousands of centrifuges, not come
clean about their past nuclear activity, not allow unfettered inspections, not force them
to take reprocessed fuel out of the country, if under all those terms we then agree to
their primary demand, which is to lift the multilateral sanctions right away, this would
be seen as a stunning capitulation, not only in Israel but in the Sunni Arab states.
And I think it would in fact make the situation worse because I think the obvious Saudi counter
move is that they will go nuclear themselves if they see that the United States is acquiescing
in a nuclear program in Iran. So that to my mind is actually a pretty frightening scenario.
MODERATOR: Okay, we've got just a little over five minutes. I thought I saw question in
here somewhere. Does anybody�and then I saw someone back there. But I think you're
next�you're willing to step up. QUESTION: Yuser Fasly , DOD. I'm�I find
it interesting that you all kind of have this view of Iran, the Iranian bogeyman that's
kind of, in my personal opinion, stuck in the 1980s. In Afghanistan the areas that have
strong Iranian influence, like Mazar-e-Sharif, are actually the most stable right now and
have been for a while. But my actual question is, why hasn't there
been a focus on Saudi Arabia, as those people �that Salafist ideology is actually
coming from Saudi which fuels ISIS, and also lots of money from Saudi has been what fueled
ISIS. So, I find it interesting that no one has mentioned Saudi as a part of the problem
as opposed to part of the solution. BOOT: Well, I think the reason why we tend
to focus on the Iranian bogeyman, as you call him, is because in Iran the customary chant
of the leadership, akin to heil Hitler in Nazi Germany, the customary chant in Iran
is death to America. And in fact, fighting the United States has
been a defining characteristic of the Iranian Revolution ever since that little incident
you may recall, even though it happened a while ago, called the Iranian Hostage Crisis,
which was followed by unceasing Iranian orchestrated attacks against U.S. targets in Lebanon, including
the deaths of hundreds of our Marines and embassy personnel and bombings of our embassy
and Marine barracks in Beirut, the kidnapping of our citizens, followed by Iranian terrorist
attacks on American and other targets throughout the region, most recently in the last decade
when Iran has been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen
in Iraq, an account that remains to be squared. That is why I, among others, am pretty concerned
about the so-called Iranian bogeyman, as you put it, because Iran has been waging war on
the United States and has been doing so pretty successfully, as well as waging war on our
ally Israel, as well as waging a war on our moderate Sunni Arab allies in the region,
trying to undermine all of them and trying to achieve a position of predominant influence
in the region. That is not to say I am not worried about
things that Saudi Arabia may do, although I think that Saudi Arabia has done much better
in countering terrorist financing and in countering support for terrorist interests. They are�they're
not 100 percent pure, neither are the Emiratis and others, but by and large the Saudis, Emiratis
and others are much more closely aligned with American interests in the region than Iran,
which is a revolutionary power which is trying to take over the region.
And that is a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies. I hope that's
a clear enough explanation of why I am concerned about this so-called Iranian bogeyman.
MODERATOR: Janine, I feel like we will be remiss if we don't discuss Turkey. What happened
to Turkey? At first they were gung-ho on getting rid of Assad. I haven't heard anybody really
mention that they should play a role as one of the regional powerhouses here. What should
they do about the rise of ISIS, especially in Syria? And what's happened to them, where
are they? DAVIDSON: That's a good question. At a minimum,
they need to be worried about the border, which I think is a bit of a�is a positive
development of late. And they've got�they have a spillover problem as well. I mean,
they've got refugees that we could be helping them with. But on the other hand, you know,
Erdogan has not been exactly a big part of the solution here.
I mean, you know, if you go to Europe he's technically their NATO ally, so what happens
if there's, you know... MODERATOR: But why not? What calculation is
he making not to play�to seemingly play almost no role here besides taking care of
refugees... DAVIDSON: I mean, I don't know what's happening
behind the scenes in terms of his pushing and pulling, but, I mean, his primary problem�and
you guys can chime in here�is that he wasn't going to jump in with both feet unless the
target was also Assad. And so, again, we have a Rubik's Cube of problems here with respect
to America's interest because you can do one thing at a time, you can't do everything at
the same time, and you can't get all the coalition members lined up against the crocodile closest
to the boat, as my husband would say, if they're still having individual agendas.
MODERATOR: Okay, we've got time for one more question. Before we take it, I want to remind
all participants that this meeting has been on the record. Did I see someone? Yes...
(UNKNOWN): Now we know. MODERATOR: I know. Maybe I...
(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: I have a very short question (inaudible).
What effect does what happen in the Middle East have on our other allies, especially
Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, when they see what in the Middle East is put
very shortly: we screw our friends and�yes, screw our friends, and are nice to our enemies?
BOOT: I just�I actually coincidentally just happened to return from a trip to Japan and
meeting with some government officials there about a week ago. And I think there is a lot
of concern. I think when Obama allowed the red line with Syria to be crossed with impunity,
I think that was a devastating blow to American global leadership and credibility, which resonates
from Ukraine to the South China Sea everywhere. I think our allies are wondering to what extent
can they trust our security guarantees anymore. And I think to some extent, the fact that
they can't trust us anymore in some cases does have a potentially positive impact because
you are seeing Japan, for example, start to spend a little bit more on defense and trying
to do a little bit more for their own security when they are facing�when they are intercepting,
you know, something like 800 Chinese flights a year bordering their airspace. So they feel
the threat pretty keenly there and are starting to do more.
But I think overall, you know, cards are on the table. I am a big believer in the Pax
Americana. I believe that the United States' role in global leadership since 1945 has been
the greatest force for good in that entire period. And I'm very worried about where we
stand right now because I think that the image, that reputation of the United States standing
in the forefront of global security has been tremendously undermined in the last several
years. And I think that makes the world a more dangerous
place and emboldens aggressors, whether Russia or China, to act up in their neighborhoods,
to say nothing of the incredible mess in the Middle East, which is almost beyond comprehension
at this point. MODERATOR: Audrey, Janine, we have got one
minute left. Does anyone want to get in here? CRONIN: Well, I would say that U.S. prestige
and credibility is not zero- sum, that some allies feel one way, some feel another way,
that I wouldn't generalize in every case, in every capital as to how they react to what
we're doing in the Middle East with respect to what's happening in Asia.
I�you know, there are some things that you have said, Max, that I sympathize with. I
think we do have to be clearer about exactly what our interests are and how we are pursuing
those interests. But I actually think that if you were in Tokyo or in Seoul or another
major capital within Asia, you'd probably have more concern about the degree to which
we are squandering our economic resources in one region versus another.
MODERATOR: Janine, you have got 30 seconds. DAVIDSON: Yes, sir.
MODERATOR: And stay on time. DAVIDSON: I also am a big believer in American
leadership in the world. I do think we have been a force for good. That doesn't mean we
haven't messed things up here and there, that we aren't sometimes ham-fisted when we do
it. That said, being a leader is not always the
easiest thing. So, not acting in places like Syria can resonate and have people question
whether our security guarantee is as strong as it was, and you hear that in Japan and
elsewhere. But then, also overreacting and being so heavily engaged in the Middle East
for 10 years also had an effect when I was in the Pentagon. Are you too bogged down?
So it's like you can't win, right? You can either go all in and get accused of being
distracted, or do nothing and get accused of�well, doing nothing.
MODERATOR: I want to thank all of our panelists. This is been a very healthy, spirited discussion.
I think we got some good... (APPLAUSE)
I think we've got some very good policy options to kick upstairs. Thank you all for coming,
and this concludes the event.
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What To Do About ISIS

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Jui-Hsiang Lin published on June 28, 2015
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