White House/Pete Souza

Last Sunday, President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice was questioned on NBC about the American administration’s war strategy concerning the Islamic State in Syria, the aggressive and messianic self-proclaimed New Islamic Caliphate. Does a strategy exist; she was initially asked, since there are, to put it mildly, doubters among the crowd. She firmly replied that there is indeed a strategy, which was stated by the president, which is to deter and ultimately “destroy” the ISIS (or ISIL, which is the abbreviation apparently preferred at the White House).

However, to destroy ISIS is not a strategy; it is an objective. The strategy is what gets the new international coalition (a doubtful quantity thus far) formed by the U.S. from here to there. She described the strategy as forming the coalition (already done by the United States, which has appointed itself the coalition’s leader, although it has not yet been made clear what the leader will do, beyond carrying out air strikes against the ISIS. What she emphatically stated was what it will not do, which is to send ground forces to fight the war. This is not entirely true, since there has already been a certain deployment of auxiliaries and counselors, and U.S. attack helicopters reportedly have been in action near Baghdad.

Ms. Rice emphatically stated that the ground war must be fought by Iraq. “It’s got to be the Iraqis,” she said. “This is their fight. This is their territory.” She added that even in the past, “when we had over 100 thousand U.S. troops in Iraq, it still came down to whether the Iraqis were willing and able to fight for their own country.” This is a sensitive point, because when Iraq’s army initially clashed with the ISIS offensive a few weeks ago it spectacularly fell apart, its commanders prominent among those who fled the field.

The president’s advisor explained that Iraq’s army had “atrophied” since United States forces had left the country, following a decade spent training this army, and the expenditure of who knows how much money creating this army, but it was ruined because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been a “sectarian” Shia, and he made the army into just an instrument of his own political power, failing to supply the leadership capable of inspiring the morale of the troops.

Now, Ms. Rice said, there is a new Iraq government that the Obama administration hopes will be able to rebuild the country’s armed forces so they can battle the ISIS on their own and win. “It’s not going to be quick. It’s not going to be easy. But this is the only way to accomplish taking back territory.” This, according to White House sources, will take three years.

One felt embarrassment because she was saying all this to the American public and international audience despite the news piece from Iraq which had run on NBC shortly before “Meet the Press” with a report from Iraq by NBC correspondent Richard Engel, who declared that today “the Iraqi army is in no better shape than it was when it collapsed.” He added that it was “completely unrealistic” to think that the army and Iraqi government are in any better shape to confront an ISIS arrack now than they were then.

The notion that Iraq will “destroy” ISIS at American behest is an illusion, and so is the notion that the coalition just formed can do it. The plan Mr. Obama laid out last week is equally unconvincing and his administration must surely know it. The Pentagon surely knows it and leaked comments and assessments by retired officers all are saying that nothing seriously will be accomplished unless the United States goes in and does the job.

What is The Plan? Well, first we and others bomb the ISIS. Then our coalition partners “roll back” the jihadist army. (At this moment, the ISIS is “rolling up” friendly Kurdish forces on the Turkish border and seizing still more Iraqi and Syrian territory.) Then, according to Mr. Obama, we and the coalition forces all join together in “destroying” ISIS. Sounds good, eh? Not really.

Three things can happen. First, the United States will send forces comparable to those previously deployed in Iraq. This will solve nothing.

Second, Mr. Obama will very sensibly refuse to get into this third war to impose America’s will upon the Middle East. As he already has said, this is the Arabs’ war to win or lose.

I make the following argument: The United States must understand that a grave crisis of Islamic civilization is overtaking the Middle East, which can only be resolved by the Muslims themselves. The United States bears a terrible responsibility for having created this crisis with its (and Israel’s and the Europeans’) military and political interventions since 1948. Nothing can be done by the West that will solve this crisis in our generation. We must withdraw, and observe this tragedy with pity — and repentance for what we have so arrogantly and casually done.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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