It’s hard to think of a word for “anti-statesmanship,” but we’re going to have to designate or coin one.
Is the Obama administration dementedly inept? What could possibly have possessed it to brief Congress on the possibility that Israel could be “dragged into” the Iraq conflict?
Daily Beast (Eli Lake) has the narrative here:
An ISIS attack on Jordan could make an already complex conflict nightmarishly tangled, the officials added in their briefing. If the Jordanians are seriously threatened by ISIS, they would almost certainly try to enlist Israel and the United States into the war now engulfing the Middle East.
“The concern was that Jordan could not repel a full assault from ISIS on its own at this point,” said one senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another Senate staff member said the U.S. officials who briefed the members responded to the question of what Jordan’s leaders would do if they faced a military onslaught from ISIS by saying: “They will ask Israel and the United States for as much help as they can get.”
Lake continues with admirable restraint:
If ISIS were to draw Israel into the regional conflict it would make the region’s strange politics even stranger.
That’s one way to put it. But the most important point of all – the grand-strategic, global-vision, big-flick zoomed-out point – is that there was no reason for the U.S. administration to ever say this, whether in a closed-door session to Congress or leaked through Congress to the media.
Assuming that we don’t want Israel dragged into the Iraq crisis (or Jordan either, for that matter), it’s mind-blowingly idiotic to speculate about it in official briefings to Congress. The very purpose of statesmanship is to consider such possibilities, weigh their likelihood, and craft everything you do and everything you say to avert them – without engaging in unnecessary speculation.
If it’s brought up by an interlocutor, the statesmanlike approach is to have a plan based on your own security priorities – to foresee, prepare, shape circumstances – and to emphasize that the plan will be in place to avert the potentially game-changing, inflammatory outcome. You shape the future in large part with what you say about it. What you don’t do is let the negative possibility just sit there, spinning off ripples of speculation about what it means that you seem to fear the particular possibility, rather than planning to nip it in the bud.
Three points about this dreadfully ill-managed expression of a policy posture. (Which, make no mistake, is what it effectively is.)
1. It’s not a realistic prediction anyway. Even if the United States remains passive, tentative, and dilatory in our approach to the Iraq problem, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will make common cause to fight ISIS, and will invite assistance from other potential backers, before Jordan will request any help from Israel that might be politically freighted or detectable to ISIS or outside observers. Jordan’s troops, moreover, will perform better than Iraq’s have, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia between them have something Iraq doesn’t: effective airpower.
ISIS, in any case, has made its terror-blitzkrieg gains in Iraq based on a long-sighted strategy that hasn’t really begun in Jordan. The ISIS victories were prepared for, months or even years ago, with tribal and/or terrorist associates in the Iraqi cities themselves, who have been in place for some time, ready to mount terror campaigns against the local regime authorities from within. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has been working on these preparations since he was released from the al-Bucca detention facility in 2009. His vision appeared to expand and solidify as a more personal, state-oriented vision when Syria was plunged into civil war in 2011. That was three years ago, and it has taken him until 2014 to prepare the battle space for the current campaign in Iraq.
Such preparations are not in place in Jordan, to the degree that would allow ISIS to start moving through Jordan as it has through Iraq. Nor is there any prospect of ISIS unifying the remnants of Iraq’s pre-existing armed forces and making a conventional assault on Jordan. For the immediate future, ISIS will have its hands full with the Shia population of southern Iraq and its Iranian backers.
The Obama administration should know this, and should know that it means there is no valid reason for even talking today about Israel being dragged into the defense of Jordan against ISIS.
2. The implied perspective of the Obama administration has the U.S. as a passive bystander, unable to do more than make wild, worst-case predictions about what may happen with two of our longest-standing partners in the Middle East, Jordan and Israel.
To both of these partners, we have made military and political commitments, above and beyond merely selling arms to them. What did we do that for, if we’re going to babble mindlessly about what could go wrong during a crisis, instead of basing a deliberate U.S. policy posture on the network of partnerships and preparations we have in place?
Whatever else there is to be said, this is one of the most damning points. Imagine if Team Obama went around speculating on what could happen if Japan got dragged into a shooting war with China – as if it weren’t capricious and irresponsible of Japan’s biggest ally to throw spitballs on that topic, in a forum with inevitable public exposure.
3. Putting the “Israel” card out there polarizes the situation and adds to the difficulty of marshalling a coalition to address the Iraq crisis in a unified way. This is probably the most obvious point. Form your own opinion, readers, of the extent to which the Obama administration is aware of that, and has burbled out the inflammatory speculation anyway.
There is simply nothing to justify conveying this thought about Israel to Congress as a take-away point. Instead of talking in these terms at all, what the president of the United States should be doing is outlining his own policy for discouraging the Iraq crisis from spilling across the borders to Jordan – or Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or our NATO ally Turkey – while keeping third parties like Israel, Lebanon, or the Gulf emirates out of it. That’s what statesmanship looks like.
Pessimistic speculation about what bad things might happen isn’t even analysis. When you’re still the nominal leader of the free world, it’s just being irresponsible and failing to keep your trap shut.