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Think First

President Obama says "we don't have a strategy yet" for combating ISIS.
President Obama says "we don't have a strategy yet" for combating ISIS.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Honesty, as your parents taught you, may be the best policy.

But it often does not serve presidents well. Take President Obama’s oft-cited, and not very artful, admission last week that “We don’t have a strategy yet” for action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Republican hawks — and some Democrats as well — pounced on the president for conceding the obvious: Deterring the terrorist forces of ISIS is a difficult task at best. Representative Mike Rogers, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News Sunday that “this don’t do stupid stuff policy isn’t working.” Surely, Rogers did not mean what he seemed to say, that doing “stupid stuff,” like bombing somebody, anybody, might work?

Yet that’s where the hawks appear headed: Bomb first, think later. The interventionist wing of the GOP, led in the Senate by John McCain and Lindsey Graham and buttressed by such neocons as Bill Kristol, has regained dominance within the party following the hideous beheadings of two American journalists by ISIS, the surge of the jihadist group across western Syria and northern Iraq, and the revanchist policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The resurgence of the hawks may influence several key Senate campaigns this fall, with Republican candidates in Iowa, Arkansas, and Alaska — all key to control of the upper chamber — touting their military experience, claiming that makes them experts in foreign policy. Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, and New Hampshire’s Scott Brown suddenly are quick to remind voters of their service.

The current international crises may have an even more substantive impact on the 2016 presidential race by discrediting the the anti-interventionist, libertarian-leaning wing of the conservative movement, led by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a leading contender of the Republican nomination. Paul has been critical of the invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration, and his anti-interventionist policies gained momentum last year when he attacked the National Security Agency’s aggressive domestic surveillance program.

Rand’s neo-isolationism led to clashes with Republican hawks like McCain and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But the Kentuckian has backed down, now calling for aggressive action against ISIS. “If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily,” he said in a statement released by his office.

Paul’s backtracking on foreign policy emboldens the usual hawks. Senator Ted Cruz, a potential rival in 2016, drew cheers recently at meeting of a tea party-affiliated group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers when he called for bombing ISIS “back to the stone age.” The rarely correct but always glib Kristol calls the positions of Paul and Cruz instances of Republicans channeling their “inner hawkishness.”

A slick-sounding phrase such as bomb them “back to the stone age” makes for good applause lines, but it doesn’t translate to good policy. Recent history should be a guide to action in the Middle East. The Bush administration’s willingness to do “stupid stuff” led to an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq without sufficient troops to control the country and without any understanding of the deep sectarian divisions between Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds and Arabs.

The sudden rise to power of the Islamic State reflects Sunni resentment of a Shiite-dominated Iraq. If the United States were to destroy ISIS, it would be taking sides in Iraq’s sectarian struggles. If the United States were to bomb ISIS in Syria, it would be taking sides in that country’s civil war and aiding the despicable Assad dictatorship.

That’s not to say the United States should not move against ISIS. The administration has a responsibility to protect American citizens. But it is to say that before President Obama orders action against the Islamic State, he considers all options, all likely outcomes, and all end games.

The president is right to be cautious. Besides, in this case caution may be crafty politics, as his caution allows Congress to demand action, giving the president, in effect, prior approval and cover for any military action he may take. Obama does not want a repeat of the 2013 Syrian fiasco, when congressional opposition forced him to back down on plans to attack Syria for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

“Don’t do stupid stuff” may sound like a recipe for inaction, but in the president’s hands it’s more likely a way to avoid domestic embarrassments and foreign fiascos.

Besides, it’s always smart policy to think first.

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