When a war is finally over, its outcome assumes an air of inevitability, as though we always knew which side would win. We find strains in the harmony of events that support our contention. We see evidence everywhere that one side or the other was doomed from the get-go. But the very real fact is that, at the time, nobody knows who will win.
At the moment, the ISIL tide is lapping at the doorstep of Baghdad, and the defenders of the Syrian town of Kobani seem to be on the verge of collapse, with the U.S. military admitting ISIL has “tactical momentum.”
But German armies once had momentum as well; they stood at the gate of Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad, as it was then) was encircled by the invaders. Huge swathes of territory had been lost. The Germans thought they had won.
Thousands of Muscovites had fled. There was panic and looting. Stalin had sent his government to Kuibyshev, 600 miles away on the Volga, and his personal train and DC-3 were waiting for him to join them. He proclaimed that “Moscow will be defended to the last!” but it could as easily have fallen, had not Hitler’s mistakes ultimately been more egregious than his own.
Events like this demonstrate that there is no inevitability in history until it is assigned later by historians or politicians. We know how desperate the course of World War II was. Until the United States entered, it seemed certain to all – including the British, the only Western power still fighting Hitler -they would lose.
But the Allies won.
A new set of allies must now face the challenge of ISIL, a challenge not limited to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. This is not our fathers’ and grandfathers’ war. Iraq is a country we have already invaded and occupied. Imagine 1948. The Allies have won in Europe but now the United States is forced to send its army back to Germany, to crush an insurgence that threatens to destabilize the region. We don’t know that the war-wearing Allies could have done that; we do know that it is very difficult for a war-wearing United States to do it now.
Yesterday, at Andrews Air Force Base, President Barack H. Obama met with twenty-one coalition military leaders in the war against ISIL, in order to discuss strategy. Represented were Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Britain Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
There was no way to sugarcoat events, and so Obama did not even try, nor did he attempt to pop the Republican alternate reality bubble. Rather, he stuck to the business at hand. He acknowledged concern over Kobani and Anbar Province, and said that “This is going to be a long-term campaign.” There are, he said, “going to be periods of progress and setbacks,” but that the coalition remains committed to degrading and destroying ISIL.
Republicans want boots on the ground. But President George W. Bush’s missteps in Iraq have made it very difficult for Obama to put troops on the ground outside limited numbers of advisors. CBS News said that the strategy session yielded “no new plan,” but it is unclear what new plan could have been devised. You can also be assured that if Obama laid out a new plan, he would be attacked for giving his plans away. The simple truth is that America does not want another war in Iraq. Iraqis, outside perhaps, of Anbar Province, do not want another American war in Iraq. This leaves President Obama with a limited number of options.
But the president did say that this campaign calls for a different approach from a conventional war. He pointed to the ideological component and to the economic conditions which contribute to ISIL’s recruitment of young men from across the region. These conditions, and not only the soldiers on the front lines, must be combated.
Here is the full text of his remarks regarding ISIL:
THE PRESIDENT: Well, good afternoon, everybody. I want to thank Chairman Dempsey for bringing us here together to review coalition operations to degrade and to ultimately destroy ISIL. I want to thank General Austin of Central Command, and General Votel, down at the end, of Special Operations Command for their outstanding leadership as well.
At this stage, some 60 nations are contributing to this coalition, including more than 20 coalition members who are represented here today — among them, Iraq, Arab nations, Turkey, NATO Allies, and partners from the world. So this is an operation that involves the world against ISIL.
So far, we’ve seen some important successes: Stopping ISIL’s advance on Erbil. Saving many civilians from a massacre on Mount Sinjar. Retaking the Mosul Dam. Destroying ISIL targets and fighters across Iraq and Syria.
Obviously, at this point, we’re also focused on the fighting that is taking place in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and we’re deeply concerned about the situation in and around the Syrian town of Kobani, which underscores the threat that ISIL poses in both Iraq and Syria. And coalition airstrikes will continue in both these areas.
One of the things that has emerged from the discussions, both before I came and during my visit here, is that this is going to be a long-term campaign. There are not quick fixes involved. We’re still at the early stages. As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback.
But our coalition is united behind this long-term effort. Our nations agree that ISIL poses a significant threat to the people of Iraq and Syria. It poses a threat to surrounding countries. And because of the numbers of foreign fighters that are being attracted, and the chaos that ISIL was creating in the region, ultimately it will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States, Europe, and far-flung countries like Australia that have already seen terrorist networks trying to infiltrate and impact population centers on the other side of the world.
So we are united in our goal to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat to Iraq, to the region, or the international community. But one of the things that’s also been emphasized here today is this is not simply a military campaign. This is not a classic army in which we defeat them on the battlefield and then they ultimately surrender. What we’re also fighting is an ideological strain of extremism that has taken root in too many parts of the region. We are dealing with sectarianism and political divisions that for too long have been a primary political, organizational rallying point in the region. We’re dealing with economic deprivation and lack of opportunity among too many young people in the region.
And so one of the interesting things to hear from our military leadership is the recognition that this cannot simply be a military campaign. This has to be a campaign that includes all the dimensions of our power. We have to do a better job of communicating an alternative vision for those who are currently attracted to the fighting inside Iraq and Syria. It is going to be absolutely critical to make sure that the political inclusion that Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq is committed to is actually translated into real progress. It’s going to require us developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside of Syria that is in a position then to bring about the kind of legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside of Syria.
And so, in addition to denying ISIL safe haven in Iraq and Syria, in addition to stopping foreign fighters, in addition to the intelligence gathering and airstrikes and ground campaigns that may be developed by the Iraqi security forces, we’re also going to have to pay attention to communications. We’re going to have to pay attention to how all the countries in the region begin to cooperate in rooting out this cancer. And we’re going to have to continue to deliver on the humanitarian assistance of all the populations that have been affected. And we have three countries here — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — who obviously are bearing an extraordinary burden from the displaced persons not just recently over the last few months, but for several years now as a consequence of the civil war in Syria. That all plays a part in this campaign.
But I want to thank all the nations who are represented here in what is a growing coalition. I’m encouraged by the unanimity of viewpoints and the commitment of the countries involved to make sure that we’re making steady progress.
The effort to destroy ISIL is not defined by the rogue actions of an American president careless of international law nor is it constrained by ignorance of realities on the ground. President Obama has built carefully, and with twenty-one nations involved and fully committed, including Middle Eastern countries directly threatened by ISIL advances, we can be sure that every effort will be made to protect not only American security but the security of every other nation involved. Regardless of Republican obsessions and talking points, the current inability to put boots on the ground (and we don’t know how this might change) does not doom those efforts to failure.
The important thing for Americans is that we have a president who is fully cognizant of the facts on the ground, and who is facing it with a head unclouded by Neocon religious or ideological fantasies, or dreams of plunder. America is involved, America is even leading, but America is not going it alone, nor against the wishes of the international community. And Americans should take heart from that, that if the going is tough, we are not going down the road alone.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.