Why a Hillary Clinton presidency could end up letting Isis and al-Qaida off the hook
As political leaders across the world swear to engage in total war against Isis in the wake of the massacre in Nice, not enough notice is being taken of the fact that the long-term prospects of the group will be boosted if Hillary Clinton is elected as the next US President.
President Obama and the Pentagon have been giving priority to first weakening and then eliminating Isis, and have been having a fair measure of success. The Iraqi army backed by US-led air strikes have recaptured Fallujah and the self-declared Caliphate has suffered a series of defeats in both Iraq and Syria.
But Hillary Clinton's expected choice as Defence Secretary, Michele Flournoy, has just co-authored a report by the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington that recommends that the destruction of Isis should no longer be the overriding objective of the US in Syria, but that equal priority should be given to taking military action against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army.
A new pro-US armed opposition would be built up to fight Assad, Isis, al-Nusra and other al-Qaida clones, a process that the report admits could take years - and "during that time the dangers posed by Isis will remain". This is not a marginal opinion among hawks in Washington, as a recently leaked memo from 51 serving State Department officials argued very much the same thing.
Instead of focusing on fighting one war against Isis and al-Qaida until it is won, the report recommends also taking military action against Assad but without destroying the Syrian state, and this demonstration of US military strength is expected to deter Russia and Iran from further engagement in Syria
The study is reminiscent of the battle plan of a First World War general, full of certainties about how enemies and allies will respond to an attack when in reality their response is unknown.
The report recommends that "the United States should also be willing to increase its use of military coercion and be willing to threaten and execute limited military strikes against the Assad regime in order to protect these actors while signalling to all of the key external actors in Syria, including both its Middle East partners as well as Russia and Iran, that it is willing to get more engaged".
Keep in mind that the civil war in Syria and Iraq involves many confrontations, but the most important struggle is a sectarian one between Shia and Sunni.
Yet the authors of the report are under the impression that the Shia in this part of the Middle East, who see themselves as fighting a battle for their very existence, will pack up and go home because of some "limited" American air strikes
The concept of the CNAS report is eerily similar to the plot of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, in which the undercover CIA agent Alden Pyle is seeking to create a pro-American "Third Force" in Vietnam that will be an alternative to communism and colonialism.
In Syria, other players are to remain curiously passive while they wait for the US to reconstruct the political landscape to its liking.
Overall, the report makes the classic blunder of assuming opponents will quail before limited threats when it may be more likely that they will respond with some counter-move of their own.
The world may soon regret the passing of the Obama years as a Clinton administration plunges into conflicts where he hung back.
He had clearly learned from the outcome of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in a way that she has not. He said in a speech on terrorism in 2013 that "any US military action in foreign land risks creating more enemies" and that the Washington foreign establishment's tendency to seek ill-considered military solutions was self-defeating.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates would write that when Hillary Clinton was pushing for bombing Libya in meetings in 2011: "I would ask, 'Can I just finish the two wars we're already in before you going looking for new ones?'"
All this is good news for Isis and al-Qaida, whose spectacular growth since September 11 is mainly due to the US helping to spread the chaos in which they flourish.
Obama could see the risks and limitations of military force, but Clinton may play straight into their hands.