The Phony War Against Islamic State
The U.S. and
its allies mostly harass, unwilling to strike decisively.
Fradkin and Lewis Libby
Wall Street Journal
July 1, 2015
“Phony War”: That’s how history recalls the meager Allied effort in
Western Europe early in World War II. Despite having declared war on Germany in
September 1939, the Allies shrank from a major offensive for months. They
considered real war too painful and themselves unprepared. Nonetheless, what
quickly followed was France’s capitulation on June 22, 1940—75 years ago
another phony war is being waged, this time in the Middle East. Those opposed to
Islamic State—the Saudis, Iraqis, Kurds, Turks and, yes, Americans—mostly
squat and occasionally harass, unable or unwilling to strike decisively.
the other side of the battlefield, Islamic State and Iran, though from rival
sects and opposed in their ultimate ends, are matched in violence, ambition and
seeks to attain nuclear weapons; to dominate oil-rich, Arab-Shiite southern
Iraq; and to preserve its Syrian ally, Bashar Assad. These three purposes
advance its dream of controlling the region and becoming the knife’s edge of
Islam’s penetration into the West.
now, Islamic State advances these goals, which limits direct conflict between
the two powers. Each sees the other as a most useful enemy, helping consolidate
support and hold the U.S. at bay.
Syria, Islamic State only spars with Mr. Assad, even abetting his efforts to gut
the “moderate” opposition. Fearful that Islamic State would dominate a post-Assad
era, the U.S. largely stays its hand, unwilling to aid Mr. Assad or depose him.
Thus, Mr. Assad and Islamic State preserve each other. As a bonus, U.S. inaction
discourages the Turks from assisting anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria or anti-Islamic
State Sunnis in Iraq.
Shiite leaders, under threat from Islamic State and seeing U.S. hesitation,
embrace Iranian support. Tehran stages anti-Islamic State forays but mostly
defends Baghdad and the Shiite south. In turn, this increased role of Shiite
militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps prevents Sunnis in the western
Anbar Province from turning on their Islamic State masters. Better to be
enslaved by Islamic State, these Sunnis reason, than to fall into the hands of a
Shiite militia. The resulting centrifugal forces tear the country apart and
press Iraqis toward one camp or the other. Neither helps us.
knows that the Obama administration dreams of a nuclear deal and, unwilling to
act in Iraq, hopes that Iran will slay the Islamic State beast. So the U.S.
cedes ground in the nuclear talks and temporizes.
Obama administration lately projects an anti-Islamic State campaign of three to
five years at best, or a decade perhaps at worst. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders hope
to tame Iran’s nuclear hunger and bloody misdeeds with inspections and
respect, a coin that must be paid in years of restraint. Maybe the
administration believes regional powers can be goaded into not just pricking,
but, with limited U.S. aid, defeating Islamic State and Iranian ambitions.
the reasoning the net consequence is the same: Iran and Islamic State have won
years to gather weapons and riches, inflame hatreds, reap recruits and plot. The
time will come, Islamic State and Iran know, to settle scores between them. But
that will be another day. In the interim, both prosper.
administration preserves its focus on preferred domestic goals. President Obama
proclaims that he envisions a benign equilibrium taking hold in the region in
the mid to long term.
it isn’t hard to envision the Middle East, bereft of U.S. leadership and awash
in blood, with its hatreds and violence spilling ever westward. Herein lies the
great gamble of the phony war.
be successful, Mr. Obama’s strategy must judge rightly the enemies’ future
strategies and America’s own. If the enemies defy his expectations, or if
future administrations reject the risks he has accepted, we will regret having
dallied as the first lines of defense eroded.
recognize that, having long misplayed their hands, the Allies had few choices at
the onset of World War II. They used their phony war to rearm. Future
generations may not be so kind toward ours.
Mr. Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute. Mr. Libby, a senior vice president at the Hudson Institute, served in the George W. Bush administration as assistant to the president and assistant to the vice president for national-security affairs.