Secretary of State John Kerry backtracked on the language he had used to describe the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL), saying in an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that, "we are at war" with the group. "I think there's frankly a kind of tortured debate going on about terminology," said Kerry, who rejected the word "war" in an interview with CBS News State Department correspondent Margaret Brennan last week and warned that people shouldn't get "war fever." "In terms of al Qaeda, which we have used the word 'war' with, yeah...we are at war with al Qaeda and it's affiliates. And in the same context if you want to use it, yes, we are at war with ISIL in that sense," Kerry said. "But I think it's waste of time to focus on that. Frankly, lets consider what we have to do to degrade and defeat ISIL."
And per Time's Zeke Miller, the White House has decided to emphasize the "degrade" half of that two-part mission statement. Kerry's stumbling reversal and the administration's rhetorical downshift are further evidence of the muddled incoherence that has typified US foreign policy under the "smart power" regime. Here's how I described the head-spinning confusion on Friday:
One year ago, Obama delivered a prime time address calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. We are now bombing Assad's primary enemy in Syria, and Assad is offering his assistance. Several months ago, Obama dismissed ISIS as a "JV" team. Now he calls them a "cancer" that will take years to defeat. And four weeks ago, the president ridiculed the prospect of arming "moderate" rebels inside Syria, saying the idea "has always been a fantasy." Today, it's step two in his own four-step strategy.
The 'JV' comment was just completely inexcusable, which is why the White House spin team has been lying in overdrive about it. 'Cancer' is more like it; to that end, read this chilling piece on the ladies of ISIS' social media milieu. As for the erstwhile 'fantasy' turned official policy, Congress is currently weighing Obama's request for authorization and funds to arm "moderate" Syrian rebels to more or less act as our ground presence. Obama has ruled out deploying American combat troops, having reportedly rebuffed the military's advice to insert a small fighting force into the theater. It looks like leadership on both sides of the aisle are lining up to back the president's plan. Boehner: “The president has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. So somebody’s boots have to be on the ground. … We ought to give the president what he’s asking for.” Harry Reid: "It's clear to me that we need to train and equip Syrian rebels and other groups in the Middle East that need some help." Nancy Pelosi's deputy, Steny Hoyer, also suggested that Congress might put off a "larger authorization" vote until after the elections. Courage. Incidentally, what have those 'good' rebels been up to recently?
Moderate Syrian rebels and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reportedly struck a cease-fire deal on Friday, according to a group that has monitored Syria's civil war. The groups agreed to a non-aggression pact in which they promised not to attack each other...The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom, said the groups reached the agreement in a suburb of Damascus, Syria’s capital. Under the deal, "the two parties will respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime,” Agence France-Presse reported. Nussayri is a negative term for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime.
Are we arming them to fight ISIS -- which is now proscribed by this tenuous non-aggression pact -- or to fight the Assad regime, which remains a dangerous Iranian client (we're apparently engaged in anti-ISIS discussions with Tehran) and sworn US enemy? NBC's Richard Engel says the administration is "living in a delusion" by ostentatiously opposing Assad while carrying out airstrikes effectively on his behalf:
Contradictions everywhere, and therein lies the problem: ISIS is evil and must be stopped, just as Assad is evil and a threat to US interests. That's why the notion of bolstering a third party at odds with both sets of villains is so appealing, at least in theory. (And we're definitely not talking about this third party, which is reportedly training bomb-makers and recruiting Western ISIS fighters to export jihad). But there's no compelling evidence that such a gambit would be practical -- rendering it, well, something of a fantasy. There are no good options. Here's another contradiction, this one emanating from the American people. Voters broadly support Obama's decision to go to war with ISIS, but they have little confidence in his ability to see his own policy through: "A combined 68 percent of Americans say they have ‘very little’ or ‘just some’ confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved...just 28 percent said they had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’ of confidence. Still, 62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it.” One last contradiction for the road, also via Zeke Miller:
President Barack Obama won the White House largely on his opposition to the Iraq War and was re-elected in 2012 on having ended the conflict. But his Administration is using the never repealed authorization vote as a supplementary legal justification for the planned expansion of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The New York Times first reported Friday that Obama Administration officials believe that the 2002 law which authorized the war “would serve as an alternative statutory authority basis on which the President may rely for military action in Iraq.” The news comes just months after National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was no longer operative.
So Obama is leaning on the AUMF he asked Congress to repeal last year and the AUMF he made a career out of opposing. Neat.
UPDATE - Has ISIS gotten its hands on some of Assad's chemical weapons (which were supposed to have been turned over and destroyed as part of the "red line" deal)?
There are now 12 people afflicted with chlorine gas poisoning in Dhuluyia, #Iraq, following Islamic State attack on Iraqi security forces.— Matt Bradley (@MattMcBradley) September 15, 2014