As ISIS continues its onslaught in the Middle East and beyond, the United States is caught between two radically different responses. On the one hand, Washington wants allies to do far more of the heavy lifting in a broad coalition with a narrow mission: to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS’ capabilities. But the administration is now shifting towards a more aggressive stance: to take the lead in defeating ISIS—and fast. The result is a strategic wasteland where allies are left guessing. Will America lead from behind or lead from in front? What’s driving this change?
There is growing pressure for this shift in strategy. With a strengthening US economy, Obama’s foreign policy leadership is taking the spotlight, whether it’s scrutiny from a combative Republican-led Congress or presidential hopefuls including Hillary Clinton’s team. Relations with allies are strained. We’ve seen a vitriolic showdown with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Qatari officials went to Washington to argue that the coalition isn’t doing enough to combat ISIS. Bottom line: Obama isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt, and patience has frayed.
All the while, the ISIS threat is mounting. ISIS is holding its own in attracting support while building its brand and overseas capacity. Moreover, the essential weakness of governments with neither the legitimacy nor the resources to ensure stability in their countries creates fertile ground for ISIS to grow Al Qaeda style cells. ISIS has quickly developed a significant presence in Libya, the Sinai in Egypt, and Yemen.
All of this is propelling the Obama administration to take on a more hawkish tone and make hasty changes to convince critics that they’re indeed doing everything possible to ensure ISIS is defeated. In Syria, that was on display when the United States, along with Turkey, signed a deal to train and arm the rebels. The political challenges of the United States to either work with president Bashar Assad (and his allies, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah), or to bring about his overthrow has made the military strategy there several notches weaker than in Iraq. There are huge drawbacks to equipping the Syrian rebels: there’s a lack of cohesion among them, their weapons could end up in the hands of ISIS itself, and it boosts the potential for an expanded fight against a well-entrenched Assad.
Washington’s incoherent strategy is playing out in Iraq too. Washington recently ramped up the timetable for “defeating” ISIS in their operations base of Mosul: what had been forecast as one or two years was pushed up to three months…before the administration had to backtrack. It was all too clear that a three month plan wasn’t plausible: the Iraqi army was routed just half a year ago, and there is limited appetite for a tough urban counterinsurgency in the heart of Sunni territory. Baghdad is determined to dictate the timetable—with good reason. Its two biggest pillars of support won’t collaborate with each other. The Iranian military has become increasingly essential to the anti-ISIS effort, spearheading the campaign to retake Tikrit; the United States has been entirely absent from that initiative. (That’s by design: they can’t risk a friendly fire incident or other problems erupting wherever the Iranians are involved). Against this backdrop, the Americans weren’t in a position to suggest a new timeline—doing so created more problems than it solved.
The Obama administration is at a crossroads. If its primary message is that allies need to do far more of the heavy lifting (the American intention when the bombing started), the administration needs to send the clearest possible signals that American efforts will have sharp constraints. If it’s that the United States will be out in front in an aggressive and accelerated campaign against ISIS, then it needs to show that all options are on the table. That could include more reliance on American enemies who have common cause against ISIS—even if those enemies are reviled by key Sunni partners.
As the United States’ strategy gets short-sighted and blurry, the chance of deeper crisis grows. There is an ominous silver lining: in the face of more acute catastrophe, perhaps a coherent and capable response could take shape, driven by the United States…or forced upon it.
*Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University. You may find him on Twitter @ianbremmer.