One of the White House’s latest initiatives on the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) fight is to dispatch Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to the Middle East to drum up support for beating the terrorist “army.”
Talk about “Mission: Near-Impossible.”
Don’t get me wrong, I support the president naming allies that are aiding the anti-ISIS effort (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, for example) while concurrently calling out (even indirectly) those that are not doing enough, as he did on Monday.
I’m also behind Carter’s trip to garner more support to tackle the terrorists, considering recent attacks here and in Europe and the persistent threat ISIS presents.
Despite this, I still have a lot of concerns, including Carter’s chances for success.
First, does Team Obama expect results? Or was the president’s cameo appearance at the Pentagon (where he announced Carter’s trip) just for “optics,” in the wake of Obama’s widely panned speech a week ago Sunday after the San Bernardino attack?
In other words, was it to say: “We’re doing something — beyond staying the course.”
Next, considering how painful the “progress” has been in battling ISIS in Syria, Iraq (now in the 15th month of an air campaign) and beyond, why has it taken so long to push for more help from Middle Eastern partners?
Plus, let’s face it, Team Obama’s muddled messages, threat mischaracterizations and perceived mistakes (for example, the Iran nuclear deal) aren’t going to help Carter get lots of traction in the region’s “sandy” politics.
The challenge was made more difficult by Tuesday’s announcement by Saudi Arabia that it had formed a new military alliance of 34 Muslim-majority nations from across the globe (reportedly minus Iran, Syria and Iraq) to fight terrorism, including the Islamic State.
If nothing else, the timing of that pronouncement is interesting, coming on the heels of Obama telling the nation of Carter’s trip — not to mention that, according to early reporting, the United States didn’t have all details before the Saudi alliance was unveiled.
If true, that’s not a good sign — even if it seems at first glance to align with Washington’s effort to up contributions to the ISIS fight. It’s actually hard to say since we seem to know so little about the Saudi initiative.
Worse, a new coalition might signal competition for — or the coming collapse of — the U.S.-led, anti-Islamic State coalition, if this new Saudi-led alliance is the “real deal.”
We’re already seeing problems.
For instance, CNN recently reported that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are only making one bombing raid a month against ISIS; Jordan and Bahrain have stopped completely.
That’s likely because some coalition members are now “en-Gulfed” in the Yemen civil war involving Iran and its proxy, the Houthis; whatever the reason, it certainly doesn’t help put the hurt on ISIS.
Beyond Yemen, another challenge to getting more involvement is that the (Sunni) Arabs might just as soon let their (Sunni) ISIS adversaries and their (Shia) adversaries, including Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, pound each other.
Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy.
In other words, despite the importance of the administration’s effort to recruit more Middle East military muscle, it’s probably a good idea to keep expectations exceedingly modest — at best — for Secretary Carter’s mission.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter.
This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald.