A former US military officer warns that efforts to target ISIS shouldn't 'hijack' US policy

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and it’s The World. Blood and treasure, that’s the euphemism. They’re the price of war. You put in money and blood and out comes victory--maybe. President Obama is asking Congress to sign off on the use of military force targeting ISIS extremists wherever they may be. He said he’s still not planning to send in ground forces, with one exception.


President Barack Obama: This resolution strikes the necessary balance by giving us the flexibility we need for unforeseen circumstances. For example, if we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them, I would be prepared to order our special forces to take action because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven.


Werman: President Obama this afternoon. Of course, the fight against ISIS is already going strong and creating some odd alliances. For example, this week Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC that the US-led effort keeps him informed about airstrikes against ISIS. Others in the region are calling for even more explicit cooperation in the battle against ISIS. Here’s Iraq’s former National Security Advisor, Mowaffak Baqer al-Rubaie.


Mowaffak Baqer al-Rubaie: The fight in Iraq against ISIS and the fight in Syria against ISIS is one battlefield. This is one enemy and we need to get the Turks and the Iranians and the Jordanians all in this so that we can declare a regional war against ISIS.


Werman: There’s already a coalition that has formed to fight ISIS says Andrew Bacevich. He’s a Boston University historian and former army officer, and he tells me he hopes the effort succeeds.


Andrew Bacevich: But the notion that if ISIS is defeated, all will be well. That’s wrong. ISIS is the symptom of a much larger problem. ISIS is not the problem. The authorization to use a military force proposal offers the opportunity to examine the larger problem.


Werman: I get your point that ISIS is not the problem, but in the meantime, doesn’t ISIS still need to be fought?


Bacevich: Yes it does. But the tenor of our conversation, in a sense, reflects the priorities that tend to prevail when matters like this are discussed in our political circles. In other words, the near-term danger of ISIS hijacks the conversation and therefore the context within which something like ISIS comes into existence and never really gets addressed. Believe me, when I concede the point that there is an imperative to destroy ISIS, which is an exceedingly heinous organization, but even if we succeed in doing that, the region will continue to being awash with dysfunction and the notion that victory over ISIS will lead to other victories that will somehow fix the problem, whatever the problem is, I think is an illusion.


Werman: What does a more comprehensive strategy look like for you?


Bacevich: First of all, it’s not a military strategy. We have tested the proposition that using military power is going to bring stability to the region and that effort has failed. So from my point of view, what’s needed is a demilitarization of US policy, greatly lowering our military profile, and from the point of view of US interest, adopting a strategy of containment to insulate ourselves from the violence and dysfunction from that part of the world. Now, that may seem like a cruel and calculated point of view because it implies that the solution to the problems roiling the greater Middle East are going to have to be constructed by the people who live there and I believe that ultimately that’s the only way the region is going to get fixed.


Werman: Isn’t that sort of what Barack Obama set out to do six years ago?


Bacevich: That’s an excellent question and the answer, I think, is yes.


Werman: What do you think happened?


Bacevich: The president has allowed himself to be overcome by events. Instead of articulating a strategy that would lead to a military disengagement, that he has been drawn into further disengagement. Whether we’re talking about Libya at the time of the revolution, the uprising against Gaddafi, or whether we’re talking about the increased use of drones in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Yemen, or whether we’re talking about this renewal of US military involvement in the ongoing Iraq war, that events really have driven policy rather than principles. In that sense, I think that the Obama Administration has failed in what it initially set out to do.


Werman: Andrew Bacevich, professor at Boston University and the author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Thank you very much.


Bacevich: Thank you.