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Yesterday President Obama announced the US will send 250 military personnel to help in the struggle against ISIS in Syria. As with the 50 already there these forces, he said, will not be ‘leading the fight on the ground’, but will be working to cement recent gains by providing critical assistance to local troops. President Obama remains opposed to any large scale US troop involvement, but is pressing our European allies and NATO to do more. Join us for an update on the battle against ISIS and new efforts to undermine its power and influence in the region and beyond.
- Michael Mandelbaum Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, author of new book "Mission Failure"
- David Sanger National security correspondent, The New York Times; author, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power"
- Ambassador James Jeffrey Distinguished visiting fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
- Missy Ryan Pentagon reporter, The Washington Post
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama is sending up to 250 military trainers and special forces to Syria to help fight ISIS. He called the move essential to shoring up recent gains made against the extremists. Here to talk about these gains and the stepped up role of U.S. military personnel, Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Ambassador James Jeffrey of The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Missy Ryan of The Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us by phone from Seoul, South Korea, David Sanger of The New York Times. And throughout the hour, we will welcome your calls, comments, join us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. MISSY RYANThank you.
MR. MICHAEL MANDELBAUMThank you.
AMB. JAMES JEFFREYThank you.
MR. DAVID SANGERThanks, Diane.
REHMGood to hear your voice, David Sanger. Ambassador Jeffrey, I want to start with you. Sending U.S. troops into Syria has never been part of the president's agenda so why the 250 now?
JEFFREYThe reason is, first of all, Diane, to build on success that we've had with some of the Syrian, Kurdish and a few Syrian Arab groups that have been fighting ISIS to the east of the Euphrates River and north of ISIS' capital of Raqqah and they've made some gains. We want to see more gains. These troops will not only be, obviously, more advisors, but more importantly, they'll be down closer to the front and thus, while under more dangerous conditions, far more likely to influence battlefield results.
JEFFREYWe're moving closer now to how we took down the Taliban in 2001 so this is a step forward.
REHMTell me what difference you think 250 or 300 troops can actually make.
JEFFREYWell, they won't make the same difference that American ground combat troops would make, that's true. But what they can do is increase the efficiency to an extraordinary degree of the local personnel that we're fighting with. And that's very important. These people will have the benefit of on-the-ground advice, tactical knowledge. These are all people, Americans who have a lot of combat experience, and importantly, they'll be able to much more effectively call in airstrikes and artillery because we're going to start using artillery and attack helicopters as well, at least in Iraq.
REHMMissy Ryan, you just flew back with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from the conference held in London and so on. What do the military believe? What do they feel they need?
RYANWell, the core problem in Iraq, as it has been in Syria especially, has been finding forces that are willing to fight the Islamic State and who are acceptable to the United States' sort of policy objectives and U.S. principles. So in Iraq, for example, there are Shiite militias who are fighting the Islamic State, but the United States, for various reasons, feels like they can't fight with them. In Syria, it's been much more difficult to find and indentify forces who will fight the Islamic State.
RYANThere are Kurdish forces who have shown themselves very willing to go up against the militants, but they are problematic, especially because of the U.S. relationship with Turkey. And so the goal now is to use these soft, these special operation troops as sort of a force multiplier to build up a larger Arab force that will compliment the Kurdish forces and fight the Islamic State in central and northern Syria.
REHMTell me how much the U.S. thinks it can accomplish before President Obama leaves office.
RYANI think that the expectations are modest. I don't think that there is even a plan to reclaim the city of Raqqah, which is the militant stronghold in Syria. I think that what they're hoping to do with these forces is to build up a more robust partner force that they can at least start to chart a course to cutting off the group from the supplies and from Iraq, importantly, because it's still and Iraq first strategy.
REHMMichael Mandelbaum, you're the author of a new book called "Mission Failure." What mission are you referring to?
MANDELBAUMI'm referring in "Mission Failure" to the missions of transformation, of making the internal governance and internal economics of foreign countries more like ours, which the United States undertook in many place between 1993 and 2014, in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider Arab world and they all failed. And they all failed for the same reason because the United States does not have the power to give other countries working, free market economies or make them democracies.
MANDELBAUMThe people of those countries have to do those things for themselves and we will face the same kind of problem in Iraq and in Syria if, and let us hope when, ISIS is defeated. Because when ISIS is gone, there will have to be some kind of political order there and that means that there will have to be people to govern these places and we don't have anybody. There isn't promising material on the ground, just as there turned out not to be in Afghanistan and Iraq.
REHMSo what is your view of these 250 American troops being sent to Syria?
MANDELBAUMWell, I agree with Ambassador Jeffrey that they will probably be helpful. American troops are the best in the world. Wherever they are, they increase the military efficiency of the fight that's going on on the part of the people whom we support, but there are several major problems. One has been mentioned. President Obama has repeatedly said that it should be Arabs, Sunni Arabs who carry the fight to ISIS, but there aren't Sunni Arabs who are willing or able to fight.
MANDELBAUMSecond, if and when we succeed, when ISIS is destroyed, there will have to be some governance there and that's not going to work. And third, in order, really, to sweep ISIS from the field, in order to destroy it completely in a relatively short period of time, you need American troops. The president has said there won't be American troops. I don't think there are going to be combat troops. And based on all of the experiences that I chronicle in "Mission Failure," I don't think the American public would support it.
REHMAmbassador Jeffrey, what about the role of NATO in this whole fight?
JEFFREYWell, in NATO and through NATO, our European allies, first of all, they are in the fight. Britain, Germany, France and many of the nations of northern Europe are flying missions today over Iraq and in some cases, over Syria. They're not -- and they also have advisory teams on the ground doing a lot of good work, particularly the Germans with the Kurds in northern Iraq. But they're not going to put significant ground troops in unless we do.
JEFFREYIf we did, I think the French, possibly the Turks and others would go along. But absent that, we're going to be still in this incremental phase, which is not going to advance this campaign as quickly as we might want.
REHMSo what are you saying? That there would have to be a minimum number of troops, U.S. troops going in, before the other European countries would seek to do so?
JEFFREYExactly, Diane. What we've seen is in the fall of Shadadi, a major ISIS stronghold in northern Syria, there were about 6,000 of these local forces with very few American advisors and enough air support. In the fall of Ramadi, when ISIS was defeated there, we had about 1,000 counterterrorism troops, which are very good Iraqi troops. So it doesn't take large numbers of combat troops, but it takes combat troops who know how to go on the offensive and who won't muddle the waters with the local people.
JEFFREYOther than American and NATO forces, it's hard to see a force that immediately comes to mind.
REHMAll right. I want to bring David Sanger into this conversation. In yesterday's New York Times, you reported on the cyber war we're conducting against ISIS. Tell us what is going on.
SANGERWell, Diane, you know, ISIS is unusual in that it's a terror organization that not only says it wants to hold territory, but also has been extremely active in cyber space. Now, one of the ways that they've been active, of course, has been in recruitment and so forth. And to tell you the truth, what we reported, that cyber command, which is the military's sister organization with the National Security Agency is doing really has relatively little to do with the recruitment. They can close down some of the recruitment efforts, but frankly, Facebook and Twitter can take those postings down.
SANGERAnd frequently, the FBI and others want to follow who it is who's signing up to ISIS, particularly from the United States. But the more interesting is that ISIS is making considerable use of computer communications for their command and control and the United States perfected in -- no, it didn't perfect, but certainly made great progress in Afghanistan and Iraq in going into alter data, get militants to move to an area where they could be open to a drone strike or some other kind of military action and they're trying the same, too.
SANGERNow, the interesting question is, why are they talking about it, and the main answer -- reason for that is that they see a moment to sort of psych out the ISIS forces by making them think we're in their systems.
REHMDavid Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, author of "Confront and Conceal." We'll take a short break and when we come back, your calls, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about President Obama's announcement that he will send 250 U.S. troops into Syria, not to fight on the ground but to advise those Syrians who are already there working with the U.S. to assist in trying to defeat ISIS. David Sanger, I want to come back to you. I want to understand clearly what a cyber bomb is.
SANGERWell, that was a phrase that was used, Diane, rather imprecisely by Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defense. You know, the cyberattacks that we're seeing take place against ISIS -- to the degree that we understand what's going on and obviously the specifics are being held pretty close -- are different from those that we've described about the attacks on Iran. In Iran, five years ago, six years ago, they were going after physical machinery, the enrichment machines that made nuclear material. That's one kind of cyberattack and in some ways the most visibly destructive.
SANGERBut there are other more subtle ways to go at this. One of them is to manipulate data inside computers. Another is to interrupt financial transfers. So just as we are -- have been blowing up the warehouses where ISIS is keeping their cash, there's been an effort to interrupt their electronic transfers. And then there's the effort I was describing before the break, which is an effort to get inside the command and control and literally imitate some of the ISIS commanders and sent their troops off to places where there may be a greeting party ready for them.
SANGERThere's all kinds of mischief you can do. And once they mistrust their communications, then they have a harder time actually talking with each other. So it was a way of degrading their own capabilities.
REHMMissy, what do you know about all this?
RYANWell, as I was saying during the break, fixing CYBERCOM's ability to go after the Islamic State and empowering them to be a more offensive tool for the Defense Department has been a real priority of Defense Secretary Ash Carter. He came in with technology, use of technology, improving the military range -- suite of technology tools being one of his big priorities and allowing CYBERCOM to take the fight to the Islamic State is something that the Defense Department, backed by the White House, is putting a lot of effort into at this moment.
REHMMichael Mandelbaum, do you see shades of mission creep going on here?
MANDELBAUMThere is every opportunity for mission creep. My guess is that President Obama will resist it and probably be criticized for it. But he would be even more heavily criticized if he allowed mission creep. What we see here is what we saw throughout the post-Cold War period and that I describe in my book, "Mission Failure," the American military is very, very good at its job. It's very good at defeating adversaries. And every time the military was called in, in the post-Cold War era, it succeeded. It took down Saddam, it took down the Taliban, it got Serbia out of Kosovo.
MANDELBAUMBut then comes the hard part. Then comes the nation building -- or to be more precise, nation-building and state-building phase. And unfortunately we've consistently failed to do that. So as long as we're trying to degrade and defeat ISIS, we will be successful and are being successful. We'd be more successful, as has been noted, if there were more American ground troops. But even with a very modest American force, we're certainly making progress against ISIS. It's after ISIS is defeated and something has to be put in its place that the real problems arise. And so far we haven't found a solution to those problems.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from JoJo, who says, using special forces has become our MO. One hundred troops occupying countries is simply not stomached by the U.S. But even our best of the best still deal with the ramifications of war. My brother served in special forces during the last two wars. He's now medically retired at the age of 35, with numerous broken vertebrae, suffers seizures, memory loss, with early-onset dementia. Even when we win, we lose thousands of brothers, sisters, moms and dads to mental and physical illness. Missy Ryan.
RYANI would absolutely agree with the comment that this is now the way that the United States wages war, under the Obama administration, certainly, there's been a very dramatic shift towards, rather than, you know, deploying these large-scale conventional forces to embracing the use of special operation troops to do direct action, which would be the kinds of raids that have occurred in Syria and Iraq in recent months, and then also the training and the partnership -- building partnership capacity as they have said.
RYANAnd I think the reason for that is that it limits the risk to American soldiers -- just fewer people out there, they're highly skilled. It can be less politically sensitive because of the low visibility. And it sort of suits this president. But I do think it's important to note that if this is the new way of American warfare, I think there needs to be a sort of greater accounting for what that means, what the implications are. And, you know, by their very nature, the special operations forces are subject to less scrutiny and potentially less public accountability for that reason.
JEFFREYI'm not too worried about the misbehaving without a lot of oversight because these are first-class troops. On the other hand, they are multipliers. They do things, as Missy said, like do raids and train and accompany forces in the field. They're not combat troops. There is a happy medium between hundreds of thousands of American troops and limited commitments of American troops who can actually do ground combat. These forces will accompany people doing ground combat, but they can't do it themselves. And we still haven't solved the problem of who's going to go in there and dig out ISIS in many areas.
REHMDavid Sanger, is the U.S. population any more in favor of sending in large numbers of ground troops than it was three years ago?
SANGERDiane, I don't believe that they are any more willing to send in ground troops than they were three years ago. And I don't think they're any more willing to send in ground troops than they were when Barack Obama was elected. But what we're seeing, if you think about the totality of this conversation, is a classic use by President Obama of what, in the first term, they called the light footprint strategy. And that was using drones, cyber and special forces, because those are all ways to exert power without having to put many Americans at risk. In fact, really only the Americans who are in the special forces, and they're not supposed to be out on the frontlines.
SANGERThe difficulty is that, if anything, it exacerbates the problem that Michael has talked about in his book, which is a terrific read, if you haven't gotten to it yet. But all of those forces can do nothing to change the nature of the society. They're pretty good at knocking back ISIS or degrading ISIS. ISIS has lost some territories, the White House will tell you. They're now beginning to attack their ability to use cyberspace. But they don't really help you in fundamentally changing what's happening in the societies themselves. And if that's the case, at some point we leave, and then of course all the old forces reassert themselves.
SANGERAnd that's the fundamental problem we had during the Bush administration and it's been the fundamental story of the Obama administration.
REHMAnd, Ambassador Jeffrey, you have said and many have said that there is really no military solution in Syria, only a political one.
JEFFREYWell, in the end, that applies to every war, including signing documents on the USS Missouri in 1945. It's all political in the end. But you can have military solutions. And this is where I would like to pick up on what David and Michael have said, because Michael is absolutely correct. I'm one of the people who went out for decades trying to fix these societies after the military went in, from working on Bosnia to Iraq to Albania in the Balkans to other places. And we cannot fix these societies, as Michael said, put them on the road to Denmark.
JEFFREYBut the corollary to this that we're also talking about here is, well, if we can't do that, then don't do anything at all. My argument would be, no, you have to take military action, where the U.S. military can be effective, to defeat the military manifestations of this underlying set of messy problems around the world. Because those are the things that threaten whole societies, that bring down states, that keep hundreds of thousands of Iraqis mobilized to defend against ISIS and millions of people and refugee status. You've got to deal with military problems through the military. Don't worry too much about fixing these societies, because we can't.
MANDELBAUMThat is certainly the theme of my book, "Mission Failure." And it leads to some genuinely difficult problems. What if we have to? We don't want to leave ISIS as it is because it generates people who want to kill Americans. And, indeed, the ongoing civil war in Syria has become a threat to an American strategic interest because it's destabilizing Europe. And Europe is very important for us. And it also involves, on one side, Iran, which is the major threat to American interests in the region.
MANDELBAUMSo the United States does have an interest in the war ending and ending in a certain way. But, as Ambassador Jeffrey said, once it's ended, you have to put something decent and stable in its place because otherwise the problems just come back.
REHMSo the question becomes, for everyone, can the battle against ISIS be won? Can ISIS be defeated without putting large numbers of U.S. forces on the ground? Ambassador Jeffrey.
JEFFREYNot in large numbers. The large numbers come in when you're trying to do what Michael is warning us against -- create stable, healthy, sane societies afterwards. You don't need large American forces to take down ISIS as a state and army. And with a limited American force, we could do that. And you'll have a mess afterwards. But that's okay.
REHMBut, truly, how much progress have we made? We keep talking about how much progress has been made with small numbers. Talk about that, Missy.
RYANSo the Islamic State has lost a significant amount of territory, if you compare it to, let's say, June 2014, which is sort of -- and the month or so after that -- which is sort of the high-water mark in Iraq and Syria, they've lost Ramadi, they've lost Tikrit, they've lost now most of the city of Heet. In Iraq they lost -- in Syria, excuse me, they lost Syria -- Kobani, they lost Shadadi. However, they continue to hold the two most important cities, Mosul and Raqqah.
RYANAnd, you know, I think that there is some question as to -- for me, the core question is, can you find partner forces that are reliable and skilled enough to the ground fighting that the United States and its allies insist needs to be done by local forces? And can they -- if they are able to defeat an organization that's, you know, made up of some thousands of men and thousands of fighters, can you turn that into an environment that won't allow this kind of violent extremist group to return?
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, if we could have, wouldn't it have been done already?
RYANThe Obama administration's argument would be that this is -- because they're insisting on the ground fighting being done by Syrians and by Iraqis, it's going to take a long time, especially in Syria, to identify and form a coherent force. In Iraq, you know, I was out just a couple days ago at a training base in central Iraq where Iraqi forces are being trained ahead of the offensive for Mosul. And, you know, while some of them have battle experience, they continue to lack equipment and, to a certain extent I think, will to fight, because of leadership and political problems in Iraq.
RYANAnd so the Obama administration -- there's a tension that they face between the short-term goal of reclaiming important and symbolic places like Mosul and the belief that fixing security institutions in these countries and then the sort of deeper cultural causes of these conflicts just taking years.
REHMAll right. Let's go to the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Dan in York, Penn. You're on the air. Dan, are you there?
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir. Dan, are you there? Goodness gracious. Let's go to Tully in Hallandale Beach, Fla. You're on the air.
TULLYHi, Diane. Thank you for having me.
TULLYMy question is going to be -- I'm going to tell you a little bit about the findings that I had, because very little is said in regards to how ISIS was actually born in the Western media. So I kind of thought to maybe -- well, in my mind, to resolve the problem, going to the root of it and quickly found out that it was actually created because of the power vacuum initially that was created when we took down Saddam. They had very little success in recruiting their own initially. And when the Syrian conflict came about, they had much more success in recruiting people. And indirectly -- though indirectly -- we basically created this problem.
TULLYNow, is it fair to expect other countries to put forth their troops to clean up the very mess, so to speak, that we created in the region?
MANDELBAUMIt's true that ISIS could never have arisen without the American destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime. So, indirectly, at the far end of the causal chain, we do bear some responsibility. Although, of course, the Bush administration never intended to do such a thing. But the major responsibility does fall on the local actors. In Iraq, we had a successful surge that bought time and political space for what is necessary for peace there, and that is reconciliation between the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Sunni population in western Iraq. And unfortunately the Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, pursued policies that alienated the Iraqi Sunnis and gave a basis for ISIS to rise. That was the fault of the local officials in Iraq, not ours.
MANDELBAUMAnd, similarly, in Syria, the reason that ISIS was able to take hold was that the Alawi-dominated government was making war on the majority Sunnis, and ISIS filled the vacuum. So at a distant remove, we have some responsibility. But it's really their problem and they created it.
REHMMichael Mandelbaum, he is the author of the new book titled "Mission Failure." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about ramifications of President Obama's decision to send 250 troops into Syria. So far, I gather their duties have not been clearly defined, have they, Missy?
RYANThey haven't, and the Pentagon is intentionally saying very little, they say force protection reasons, about where they will be and what they'll be doing. But I think it's safe to assume, just from the information that I've been able to glean over the last few days, that they'll have -- as a force they'll have a sort of duel mission. Part of that will be advisory -- advising the local forces, who are trying to retake territory from the Islamic State and also recruiting, as we were just talking about earlier, growing the Arab component of the partner forces in Syria.
REHMAll right, let's go to James in San Antonio, Texas, you're on the air.
JAMESGood morning, Diane. I hope I'm coming in clear. We've got some rough weather coming in down here. And good morning to you and your panel.
REHMGood morning, and you're coming in loud and clear. Go right ahead.
JAMESGreat. Diane, 1966 I joined the U.S. Army, and I became a proud member of the 82nd Airborne, did two years with the 82nd, come out, went stateside, and I joined the Army Rangers. My second tour in Vietnam I was an advisor. I'm seeing a thing going on right now that looks like Vietnam all over to me. We had troops inside Vietnam we were training, and I can't say much about my Special Ops background, naturally, I don't want to be arrested, but we -- we were in a compound one night, and I was there in a communications cell.
JAMESAnd I told my commander, I said, we've got two guys walking the perimeter. What are they doing? Are they having guard duty? He said no, they're not on guard duty. I said, well, they're doing something because they're stepping off footage of the perimeter. Within about 15, 20 minutes to a half an hour, we had artillery coming in.
REHMI understand, and David Sanger, many people have wondered to what extent there is a similar with our buildup in Vietnam to what's happening now. How do you respond?
SANGERYou know, there is a superficial comparison, and I think it was one that was made very often early in the Obama administration, among others by Richard Holbrooke, who of course had been in Vietnam as a young foreign service officer around the same time that your caller was there. But I think what is pretty clear from watching President Obama, we can't speak for his successor yet, is that he is so highly attuned to the slippery slope problems that, if anything, the problems that he has faced in Syria and to some degree Iraq have less been sins of commission but rather concerns about his hesitation.
SANGERAnd I think this gets to an issue that Missy was raising just before, which is it -- one of the unknowables of the Obama years would be what would've happened had we armed the rebels earlier, what would've happened if Special Forces had returned earlier. In other words, could you have been in a position where you were training up local troops and not letting ISIS gain the kind of territory that they gained? And we'll never know the answer to the question of whether President Obama waited too long.
SANGERBut I would say that the Washington consensus, which is not necessarily accurate, the Washington consensus, including some in his own party and including Hillary Clinton, if you go back to the history of what she was arguing for, were arguing for a more aggressive, early-on approach in hopes of forestalling the moment where we're at the -- that we find ourselves in today.
REHMWould that have changed matters, Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREYWe can't look back in history and say with certainty, but we can look back in history and cite analogies, and we just had one, Vietnam. Everybody knows in 1975, the Vietnamese army collapsed under the North Vietnamese. What people in some cases don't know is that the same attack occurred in 1972. The Vietnamese army held, I was a soldier, I saw that, because of the kind of advisory forces, Special Forces, artillery and air that President Obama is now moving towards finally.
JEFFREYWe can back up local forces effectively. We know how to do this. And that is the way forward.
REHMHere is an email from Jim, who says, one of your guests said that after the war, after the war there is always political failure in trying to change things. What about Clinton's war in the former Yugoslavia, Serbia, Kosovo? What accounts for the political transformation there, Michael?
MANDELBAUMWell that's a good question, and I would refer the caller to my book, "Mission Failure," to Chapter 2 on humanitarian interventions. But it's a very good question, and the reason that Bosnia and Kosovo have been stable is that what we have there is effective partition through, unfortunately, ethnic cleansing.
MANDELBAUMThe Serbs started the war, or at least were mainly responsible for the war in Bosnia, because they didn't want to be part of a state that was dominated by Muslims. And because of the Dayton Agreements, they're not. So they basically got what they wanted. Similarly in Kosovo, the Albanian Kosovars control the country, but all of the Serbs are concentrated in the northern part of the country and aren't really part of the state. They're not really governed by the Kosovars.
MANDELBAUMSo one solution, when you have inter-ethnic strife, is to separate the parties and make them quasi-independent, and that's what we did, unintentionally and without calling it that.
REHMYou're talking about partitioning Syria?
MANDELBAUMWell, I think that ultimately if there is going to be stability, that is likely to happen with a Alawi, perhaps Christian enclave on the coast and the Sunni majority elsewhere.
REHMBut isn't that a prescription for a future battle?
MANDELBAUMIt might be, but after all there's a battle going on now. So it might also be a prescription and might be the only prescription for peace. But there are lots of problems, that's true, and we're not close to that yet.
REHMAll right, to Alex in Houston, Texas, you're on the air. Alex, are you there? Let's go to Morristown, Tennessee. Hi there, Thomas.
THOMASHello, Diane, thank you for taking my call. A brief comment and then two questions for you and your panel. I think it's a very bad idea, I voted for the president, I'm a college graduate, class of 2007, TSU, and a veteran of the United States Air Force. It's a very bad idea that the president is sending 250 brave Americans into harm's way. That's my comment. And the question to your panel and you, Diane, is, isn't the United States breaking international law, and that's a fact, by sending U.S. troops into a sovereign state, Syria?
THOMASSyria is an ally of Russia. Russia has an obligation to protect its allies the same way that the United States protects NATO. And to me this is what your previous caller was definitely on track to point out to your panel and the American people. We -- I'd say the Pew poll would agree with me that a majority of Americans do not agree with the president sending 250 and even those already in harm's way there. We have no business in Syria. Thank you, Diane.
REHMAll right, Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREYYeah, polls are split, but roughly half of the American people want to see a more aggressive action against ISIS, and I think that presidents know that the hardest thing they have to do is to send people into combat. But it's hard to imagine a world where you rule out that possibility because these terrible problem are just going to get worse if the United States doesn't find a way to effectively intervene.
RYANI can't speak to the legal situation, but as a matter of policy and sort of pragmatics, there seems to be an understanding between the United States, even if it's not explicit, hasn't been reached explicitly between the United States and Russia and Syria, that as long as these advisors are in areas where the Syrian government is not present, and we can assume that they are in Northeast Syria, and they are not backing forces directly who are attacking the Assad forces, that that will be permitted.
REHMDavid Sanger, I know you wanted to jump in.
SANGERYeah, just one point. I think that your caller makes an interesting point about what's our national interest in Syria. And certainly President Obama took the view early in his time and really through to about two years ago that while we had some important interests in helping keep the peace and certainly a humanitarian interest to try to help the more than now 250,000, probably 300,000 Syrians who have been killed and millions displaced, that we didn't have a vital national interest there.
SANGERThat calculation has begun to change a bit. It's begun to change in part because of the attacks in Europe, the Paris attack, the Brussels attack, but it's also -- it's also changed because we've hit a point where the migrants themselves emerging from this area have now suddenly become a major security issue for our biggest allies in Europe and have threatened the stability of the European Union.
SANGERNow you may still conclude that that is not -- does not rise to the level of a vital American interest, but certainly there are more American interests involved now than there were when President Obama first had to go deal with this issue.
REHMHere's a fascinating email from Mike. He says, it's important to realize the battle against ISIS in the Middle East cannot be won under the current social and political conditions there. It most certainly can be lost. We must accept that unless we are willing to cede the entire Middle East and much of Africa to ISIS and al-Qaeda, we are in for a generations-long fight and that supporting unpleasant strongmen will be a necessary part of the process. Our opponents are perfectly okay with eternal war as a way of life. This is the price of empire. Missy?
RYANWell, I don't necessarily agree that the sort of tactical battle against ISIS cannot be won. I think that it is possible to weaken them substantially enough that the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, someday Syrian government and whatever form government or governments, whatever form that takes, can reassert control of most of their territory. It think it's unlikely that as an insurgent movement or an ideological movement it's going to go away.
RYANBut I think that the fundamental question that everyone is grappling with is why, why is this such an attractive movement, and why are people drawn to this. And I just frankly think that we haven't figured that out. And until we understand that more deeply, you're not able to deal with the sort of broader appeal and the broader roots of not just the Islamic State but the other sort of violent extremist organizations that across Africa to Central Asia have now identified themselves with this group.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. David?
SANGERNo, I think that Missy has got it exactly right. We don't fully understand, for all the years that we have studied it, what the cause of all the radicalization is. And I think that's one of the reasons that you've seen such an attention to the social media element to this, both to the question of what you could do to shut down their recruiting but also what you can do to counter their message. And we know more about how to counter their message technologically than we know about how the social dynamics of countering their message.
SANGERWhat have we learned? First of all that the United States government cannot be the bearer of the anti-ISIS message, that we lack a credibility with the largely young people who we are trying to attract there. So it's got to come largely from Muslim populations. And some of the most successful of those discussion have concerned putting on the Web people who were in ISIS and then left and can tell the story of the true horrors of being a member.
REHMSo the question becomes, what's ahead for the next administration, Michael?
MANDELBAUMWhat's ahead in the Middle East is turbulence and turbulence that, as the emailer noted, is rooted in the social and political pathologies of those societies, which we can't change. It's true that we are supporting some objectionable dictators, but the alternative is worse. We can't get the Middle East that we want, so we have to settle for the best or least-worst Middle East that we can get, and for the next president it's going to be bad, and therefore the next president's task is to do whatever we can at the margins to improve the Middle East, which is not much, and protect America and our allies from the worst consequences of the turbulence that's inevitable.
JEFFREYMichael is right, but a word of optimism, all polls that I've seen show that the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East reject ISIS, and the percent that are rejecting it is going up. So this isn't a hopeless social...
REHMBut why aren't they getting out and fighting them, then?
JEFFREYSome are. That's a very complicated question of religious values. The point is almost no one is joining them. It's a very marginal phenomenon. But it is a phenomenon that can manifest itself in dangerous ways, as ISIS is doing now. The next administration is going to have to defeat ISIS because this one will not, I don't think, and it will have to deal with Iran, which is another sort of both nationalist and religious threat to the region.
RYANI think that the Islamic State could be debilitated tactically. But again, you know, al-Qaeda in Iraq, its precursor, was also debilitated tactically prior to the American withdrawal, and it, you know, resurged several years later in a different format. So I think that, you know, until we get at these fundamental roots that we're talking about, we can expect more.
REHMBriefly, David, your thoughts?
SANGERYou know, the next American president is going to have to make two or three basic, fundamental decisions. The first is he or she is going to have to reassess whether or not this is a vital American interest. Secondly, even if it is going to have to reassess what degree of resources we're willing to put into it and whether or not, you know, you've got to go beyond Special Forces.
SANGERAnd then thirdly, and I think this -- I'm thinking about this a lot right now because I'm in Asia this week, they're going to have to decide, is Syria is an example of where we're going to have to begin to disengage from the Middle East and refocus on other parts of the world where President Obama talked frequently about pivoting but wasn't able to get to.
REHMDavid Sanger of The New York Times, Missy Ryan of The Washington Post, Ambassador James Jeffrey, Michael Mandelbaum, his new book is titled "Mission Failure," thank you all so much for being with us.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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