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War Against ISIS Poised To Expand Into Libya?

Obama ISIS

President Obama is being pressed by advisers to expand the war against ISIS to yet another front, and this time it’s a front far away from either Iraq or Syria:

WASHINGTON — President Obama is being pressed by some of his top national security aides to approve the use of American military power inLibya to open up another front against the Islamic State.

But Mr. Obama, wary of embarking on an intervention in another strife-torn country, has told his aides to redouble their efforts to help form a unity government in Libya at the same time the Pentagon refines its options, which include airstrikes, commando raids or advising vetted Libyan militias on the ground, as Special Operations forces are doing now in eastern Syria. The use of large numbers of American ground troops is not being considered.

The debate, which played out in a meeting Mr. Obama had with his advisers last week, has not yet been resolved, nor have the size or contours of any possible American military involvement been determined.

“The White House just has to decide,” said one senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “The case has been laid out by virtually every department.”

The number of Islamic State fighters in Libya, Pentagon officials said this week, has grown to between 5,000 and 6,500 — more than double the estimate government analysts disclosed last fall. Rather than travel to Iraq or Syria, many new Islamic State recruits from across North Africa have remained in Libya, in militant strongholds along more than 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline near Surt, these officials said.

The top leadership of the Islamic State in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to Libya to help organize what Western officials consider the most dangerous of the group’s eight global affiliates. In recent months, United States and British Special Operations teams have increased clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify the militant leaders and map out their networks for possible strikes.

Military planners are still awaiting orders on whether American involvement would include striking senior leaders, attacking a broader set of targets, or deploying teams of commandos to work with Libyan fighters who promise to support a new Libyan government. Any military action would be coordinated with European allies, officials said.

Teams of American Special Operations forces have over the past year been trying to court Libyan allies who might join a new government in a fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But commanders say they are dealing with a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.

“How long will the United States and the Europeans wait until they say, we have to work with whatever militias we can on the ground?” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who frequently visits the country.

When Mr. Obama assembled his national security advisers last Thursday to discuss escalating the fight against the Islamic State, he asked them to prepare whatever military measures were necessary to combat the militants in Libya while not undercutting the international effort to help form a national unity government.

For Mr. Obama the challenge is to avoid embarking on yet another major counterterrorism campaign in his last year in office while also moving decisively to prevent the rise of a new arm of the Islamic State that if left unchecked analysts say could attack the West, including Americans or American interests.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter summed up the balancing act between nurturing the fragile and fitful political process and gearing up for what would most likely be a Special Operations war this way last week: “We’re looking to help them get control over their own country.”

But, he added, “We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq. That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely. That’s the reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future.”

A dozen American and European military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said in interviews that they had little doubt that the Islamic State in Libya posed an ominous threat.

“You could see a very large holding, an area that is effectively governed by ISIS in Libya, and Libya’s proximity to serve as a gateway into southern Europe,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this week in calling for military strikes against Islamic State leaders.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome this week that the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State must intensify its efforts to thwart thttp://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/world/isis-libya/he group from gaining a “stranglehold” in oil-rich Libya, mainly by backing the creation of a national unity government there. “The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” Mr. Kerry said.

Forming a unity government would most likely lay the groundwork for the West to provide badly needed security assistance to the new Libyan leadership. Options under discussion include sending Italian and other European troops to Libya to establish a local stabilization force and reviving a Pentagon plan to train Libyan counterterrorism troops.

There is no functioning government now in Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nearly five years ago. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State, and Libya’s neighbors are all too weak or unstable to lead or even host a military intervention.

Lawmakers in Libya’s internationally recognized Parliament last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposed United Nations-backed unity cabinet, dealing a blow to diplomatic efforts to swiftly reconcile the country’s splintered factions.

Senior administration officials say the parallel tracks of supporting the political process in Libya while fighting the Islamic State are “mutually reinforcing.” But at some point, current and former administration officials said, the United States may have to act unilaterally or with allies if faced with a credible threat from the Libyan franchise.

“Weighing our actions based on how it impacts the Libyan political environment is an almost impossible juggling act,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. “We may not have a choice if ISIS continues to control greater swaths of territory and assemble more terrorists.”

The fact that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is now finding itself being force to turn attention to Libya is not entirely surprising. In the roughly year and a half since ISIS burst on the scene and declared the formation of the so-called “Islamic State” in the territory it has captured in Iraq and Syria, militants and Jihadists in many countries around the Middle East and Northern Africa have pledged their allegiance to ISIS in one way or another. This has included groups in areas as diverse as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and, of course Libya. While most of these groups have tenuous ties to ISIS itself at best, in many cases ISIS itself has followed up by sending representatives to many of these groups and making the ties more formal and, in some cases, establishments more a more formal presence in the territory controlled by the group(s) in question. This has apparently been the case to some degree in Afghanistan, and it appears to be at least part of the reason that the United States has slowed the withdrawal of American troops yet again despite previous plans to have all American troops out of that country by the end of this year.

Nowhere has ISIS expansion been happening at a faster pace, though, than in Libya. Thanks in large part to the fact that the central government that replaced the Gaddafi regime is weak to non-existent and has largely ceded control of vast swaths of the country outside of the area surrounding the cities on the nation’s Mediterranean coastline, there seems to be plenty of space in that nation for militant groups to establish a foothold and centers of power that have remained largely unchallenged for years now. Unsurprisingly, ISIS has taken advantage of that power vacuum to establish a foothold in the nation to the point that there has been some speculation that ISIS leadership may consider Libya to be a “backup” power center that they could escape to should the coalition’s war against the group in Iraq and Syria start to prove successful enough that it is actually threatening their hold on power. What this means, of course, is that defeating ISIS in the Levant, which is something that is by no means certain and still seemingly a long way off even if it is an attainable goal, may not be the end of the game. Indeed, the fact that ISIS has apparently already taken hold in parts of Libya suggests that it could become an even more potent force given that it gives the group a base of sorts from which it can strike Europe as well as use the chaos in nations surrounding Libya to expand its power and influence into Northern and Central Africa even while continuing to hold on to its base in Syria and Iraq.

None of this should come as a surprise, of course. Just as toppling Saddam Hussein and fighting the insurgency that followed helped to create the chaos that led to the rise of ISIS to begin with,deposing the long-standing Gaddafi dictatorship helped to create the conditions that have allowed a wide variety of terrorist and Jihaist organizations to thrive in the ungoverned, and ungovernable, areas of Libya. We found that out the hard way in September 2012 when some of those militants staged an attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, a city that remains largely under the control of militants, an attack that resulted in the first death of an American Ambassador in hostile conditions in more than thirty years. Now, we’re finding that the chaos we helped create in Libya has attracted ISIS, and is helping it establish a foothold in a nation that could give it the ability to expand even further than it already has.

At this point, the expansion of the anti-ISIS effort into Libya is only something that the President is being asked to “consider,” but the fact that this story is appearing in The New York Times should be seen as a signal that this is likely where we’re headed in the coming months. In the past, we’ve seen similar reports of President Obama being “advised” to expand the war against ISIS in one way or another drop in the Times or Washington Post only to find the President standing at a podium weeks later that to announce that this is, in fact, what he will be doing. It’s happened at virtually every step along the road of the slow escalation that the Obama Administration has engaged in during this conflict, and it’s likely intended by whomever is leaking these reports to both prepare the public for the inevitable and push their case inside the Administration. The fact that this expansion of a war that Congress still has not debated or approved would happen without any Congressional debate or approval seems to be lost on everyone, as is the fact that, slowly but surely, this President has engaged in a policy of expansion of this conflict that will make it impossible for whomever the next President might be to to either change or course or extract the U.S, from what seems to be an increasingly fruitless endeavor.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jack says:

    Imagine that…another war led by BO that has not received Congressional approval.

    Apparently Kings don’t need to ask permission, they just have to pay respects at the local mosque.

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  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I’ve said it before and I will say it again – our ally in this region should be Iran. The Sunni governments, especially Saudi Arabia, can’t be trusted as they are responsible for this chaos in the region. I suspect the Saudi Royal Family will soon be leaving for the bolt holes they have already purchased in New York and London. The Wahhabi that take their place will encourage ISIS.

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  3. Jack says:

    Maybe if BO ignores it until it’s too late and then claims he read about it in the newspaper or saw it on TV people will believe it.

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  4. Jack says:

    @Ron Beasley: Yes, because Iran loves the US so much they call us the great Satan and send IEDs into Iraq to be used against our troops.

    I can’t think of a better ally…you know, except anyone else.

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  5. Jack says:

    It’s become obvious that Obama does not want to win this war. It’s time for Obama to lead from behind. Pay the Jizya, like all weak infidels do in hopes the Islamic overlords will safeguard our existence.

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  6. Tyrell says:

    In this conflict, as most, location and geography are important, sometimes everything. ISIS needs to be confined, controlled, and then destroyed. Any sources of more recruits and supplies will need to be cut off and that usually means going into other countries.

    ISIS growing: http://www.wnd.com/2016/01/isis-talks-mega-merger-with-al-qaida-muslim-brotherhood/

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  7. Ron Beasley says:

    @Jack: Do you honestly believe that the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia hate us less than the Iranians. Iran/Persia represents a 3,000 year old civilization while most of the rest of the ME represents a number of warlike tribes – and yes that includes the Israelis.

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  8. Tillman says:

    @Jack: The word “vacuous” comes to mind.

    Libya, by the way, is a good example of Clinton’s influence over Obama’s foreign policy (as well as I think Samantha Power). Just keep that in mind however you interpret the success of it.

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Jack: Why do you come on here and….DFTFT.

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  10. Jack says:

    @Tillman: Because Obama’s forays into wars have been oh, so intelligent. He can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag with the greatest military on the planet.

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  11. Jack says:

    @gVOR08: There are enough of you polishing Obama’s balls on OTB.

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  12. Jack says:

    @Ron Beasley: At least the Saudis were smart enough to put up a wall to keep out the Syrian refugees.

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  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jack:

    He can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag with the greatest military on the planet.

    Oh, if only we were still led by the strategic genius of George W. Bush! Now there’s a man who would have protected the US against terrorist attack, pacified the Middle East and Afghanistan, and killed Osama bin Laden if only he’d been in charge!

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  14. WR says:

    @Jack: “Imagine that…another war led by BO that has not received Congressional approval.”

    Ah, it must be Thursday. Because on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jack shrieks “That pussy Obama won’t send troops against ISIS because he secretly wants them to take over America!!!!

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  15. WR says:

    @Jack: “It’s become obvious that Obama does not want to win this war.”

    I guess Jack misplaced his calendar. He should really wait a day between “that fascist is going to start a war without congressional approval because he’s a dictator” and “Obama is a weakling who wants ISIS to win and impose Sharia law on us all.”

    Do you think Jack is actually too stupid to understand what a fool he makes of himself, or is flinging whatever poo is closest to hand the only thing that matters to him?

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  16. Jack says:

    @Rafer Janders: @WR: Another Obama ball washer. Do you tickle his ass too?

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  17. Jack says:

    @WR: Both statements can and are true. He has failed to get Congressional approval to commit troops, supplies, weapons against ISIS AND he is a pussy. You can beat your dog and still be a wimp.

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  18. Slugger says:

    Can someone explain this war to me? What is the strategic threat? I don’t think ISIS threatens to shut off the oil taps since they are selling to lots of buyers. If they control a bunch of desert, I don’t see the danger.
    It’s certainly true that Obama has acted without Congressional authorization. The Republican leaders have stated that they will not do anything about this. This combination of executive action and refusal by Congress to exercise its oversight duties generates enough bad action to besmearch both parties. I think that a Congressional debate would be the right thing and would answer the questions I have about the purpose of these actions. Our country went to war in Iraq for specious reasons a decade ago. I want a good reason for war.
    Please don’t tell that they are bad guys. There are lots of bad guys in this world, and the US military is not a branch of the intergalactic Green Lantern protectors.

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  19. walt moffett says:

    Something about the Pottery Barn comes to mind which leads to thoughts about Humpty Dumpty.. Interesting to see if this comes up in the Clinton-Sanders debate.

    Though letting the Italians (as former colonial ruler) do the grunt work is appealing.

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  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jack:

    Um, I don’t know where you get that from what I wrote. Don’t YOU agree that George W. Bush, if only he’d been in charge, would have protected the US from terrorist attack, pacified the Middle East and Afghanistan, and hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden???

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  21. WR says:

    @Rafer Janders: Don’t disturb Jack. He’s started obsessing over male genitalia again, and I suspect he won’t be able to type for a little while.

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  22. C. Clavin says:

    this President has engaged in a policy of expansion of this conflict that will make it impossible for whomever the next President might be to to either change or course or extract the U.S

    Quick, Doug…name one Presidential candidate besides Bernie that wouldn’t escalate this far faster than Obama has?
    Obama’s moves have been measured…a word that should be respected in Foreign policy…but is not in the current atmosphere. Obama is right…the rest of the nut-jobs will have us killing soldiers, spending treasure, and have us paying $5 a gallon for gas. Not the least of whom would be Rubio, whose overt allegiance to the looney bin called PNAC is downright dangerous.

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  23. Jack says:

    @WR: It’s easy to see you can type and wash Obama’s balls at the same time. Good for you.

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    @Jack:

    You can beat your dog and still be a wimp.

    You mean like you beat your (illegal?) Mexican wife, and are still a massive pu$$y?

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  25. Jack says:

    @Rafer Janders: You keep going back to Bush as if I hold him up to be some sort of example. I’m talking about the contemptible piece of shit that occupies the oval office now.

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  26. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Oh, beating your dog holds a special meaning for you, doesn’t it?

    Did you move your bestiality website to a new domain name after I exposed you?

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  27. Pch101 says:

    The number of Islamic State fighters in Libya, Pentagon officials said this week, has grown to between 5,000 and 6,500

    There are an estimated 45,000 gang members in Los Angeles County.

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  28. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin:

    measured

    Is that what you call his cowardice?

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  29. Scott says:

    @Jack: You know, Jack, After all the words you spilled here, I still have no idea what you believe or think. Just a bunch of inarticulate spittle-flected invective from a rage-o-holic. You could say: I think we need to stay out of there. Or We need to have Congress authorized this first. Or I think we should raise taxes to pay for our wars. Or. any number of things. But you said nothing.

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  30. Jack says:

    @Scott: Then you are free to skip over my posts.

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  31. Steve V says:

    @Scott: He’s just a mindless partisan. He’s one of those people who blamed Nancy Pelosi when things were going badly under Bush, and he’ll blame some other Democratic congresspeople when things go badly under the next Republican.

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  32. C. Clavin says:

    @Scott:

    But you said nothing.

    Yes…but he says nothing in such a profoundly retarded way!!!

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  33. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Not the least of whom would be Rubio, whose overt allegiance to the looney bin called PNAC is downright dangerous.

    An allegiance shared by Little Jebbie!. That alone should be disqualifying for president. As should Cruz’ apparent adherence to his father’s end times beliefs. Why would any sane person give nuclear launch codes to someone who WANTS the end of the world.

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  34. NW-Steve says:

    @Jack

    Your first post in this thread savages BO for doing too much, and illegitimately. Your second (a whole two posts later) savages him for not doing too much.

    Do you perhaps see a logical problem in this?

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  35. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Have you stopped diddling little boys yet?

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  36. Jack says:

    @NW-Steve: My second post did not savage him for not doing too much, it was a suggestion that he perform something that has worked for him in the past to address the current problem.

    Do you perhaps see a reading comprehension problem in this?

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  37. charon says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I’ve said it before and I will say it again – our ally in this region should be Iran.

    The hard liners who control Iran want U.S. as an enemy for their domestic political reasons. This is why Iran resists establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S.

    I agree with you, BTW – too bad Iran does not.

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  38. Pch101 says:

    One of the objectives of the Project for a New American Century (read: the neo-conservatives who brought you Bush 43’s war in Iraq) was to use the defeat of Saddam as a catalyst for regime change elsewhere in the Arab world — toppling Saddam was expected to inspire rebellions that would overthrow existing governments in the region.

    Hence, all of the initial excitement over the “Arab Spring.” Gee, that worked out well.

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  39. gVOR08 says:

    @Pch101: Except, of course, there’s no reason to take anything put out by PNAC at face value. One has to assume the real reasons were that Saudi Arabia wanted Saddam gone, Israel wanted Saddam gone, and the oil industry wanted the oil embargo gone.

    Occasionally some one reminds us that the W admin never put out a credible reason for the war. And please, nobody tell me bad intelligence. The bad intelligence was created to justify a decision already made.

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  40. Tyrell says:

    @charon: The hard liners will probably be ruling Iran for some time, but the day will come when moderates take over and a US – Iran alliance can take place. Much like we have with India.

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  41. Pch101 says:

    @gVOR08:

    The neocon approach was to avoid the downsides of realpolitik (i.e. cutting deals with bad guys) by transforming the bad guys into good guys. Keep in mind that a part of the neo-conservative movement is comprised of former liberals who want to combine the joys of American hegemony (the right wing element) with a desire for democracy (their disaffected once-liberal side.)

    If the Iraq War had been strictly about oil and control, then Hussein would have been replaced by a US-friendly despot. Instead, the US went through a lot of drama trying to create a democracy that was free of the vestiges of Hussein’s Baath party.

    It didn’t occur to the neo-cons that this strategy could backfire. Badly. Very badly. Bush 41 didn’t want to stir up that hornet’s nest, hence his waging of a brief war that was oriented around containment instead of regime change. They condemned him for not going far enough and failing to finish the job.

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  42. gVOR08 says:

    @charon: @Tyrell: Yes, like American conservatives, their conservatives find an enemy useful. Beyond that, they hate us for aiding Britain in overthrowing their elected government in the 50s, supporting the Shah and his secret police, supporting Saddam in his war against Iran, and shooting down their airliner. We hate them for taking our embassy personnel prisoner. But we have no real, current cause for hostility. Except Israel and Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe we have an obligation to screw up our foreign policy forever to support Israel. Nor are we obliged to support SA in a Sunni/Shiite religious war. Obama is taking a chance that peaceful contact with the West will eventually let us both get past our hostility. A chance well worth taking IMHO. And if they can get past what we’ve done to them, we ought to be big enough to get past what they’ve done.

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  43. gVOR08 says:

    @Pch101: Many plans fail. Lack of success is not evidence of lack of a plan. Our original plan was to install a military governor. At one point the admin apparently even talked about Chalibi as governor. When the military governor plan fell apart we installed Paul Bremmer as de facto dictator. My recollection is W didn’t start babbling about democracy until quite late in the game, when other rationalizations had grown threadbare.

    However, I don’t know that any of that is relevant. The standard argument against the war being about oil is that we didn’t try to control the oil. But Exxon, BP, et al don’t care whether the oil is shipped by US companies to the US. They make money as long as oil moves. Haliburton has a shot at making money no matter who’s shipping oil. They don’t need US political control.

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  44. Pch101 says:

    @gVOR08:

    As I noted, the neocons had a democratic vision for Iraq, one that would inspire others in the region to do to their leaders what the US did to Iraq’s.

    They were partly correct. The Iraq War led to the Arab Spring, but the Arab Spring was a lousy result.

    If it had been just a war for oil, then they would have done things differently. I’m not referring to the results, but to the actions taken. And those actions were consistent with the theories of the neo-conservative movement, which argues against relationships with tyrants that are motivated by realpolitik and containment.

    The thing is that if it had been a war for oil and Hussein had been replaced by a US puppet who could control his country, then the outcome may have been much better for the US. It was these theoretical failures, such as the belief that there was no need to disarm the Iraqi people and conflating the Baathists into a sort of Gestapo movement, combined with Rumsfeld’s failed military doctrines, which led to the failure of the occupation.

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  45. NW-Steve says:

    @Jack:
    What, specifically, would you propose that he do that doesn’t offend your position in the very first post of this thread.

    Telling, too, that you resorted to an ad hominem attack

    Do you perhaps see a reading comprehension problem in this?

    to make your point. I’m prepared to defend my skills in that area.

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  46. WR says:

    @Tyrell: “The hard liners will probably be ruling Iran for some time, but the day will come when moderates take over and a US – Iran alliance can take place. Much like we have with India.”

    Where, by an astonishing coincidence, the hardliner religious fanatics are taking over as we speak.

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  47. dazedandconfused says:

    Doug,

    I think you are buying in to the false narrative that nothing can be done without the US in military matters, a common one these days. There is nothing I see that make it impossible for the next President to tell the Euros, who face the greater risk of an “ALIS” (al-Libi Islamic State, if you will…), and if the lot of them can’t clean out a Libya….

    The learned helplessness of the Cold War will end one day, one way or another. We nevertheless must contemplate the possibility an ALIS will come to pass, things aren’t going well for them in Al Sham and other parts, not well at all.

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  48. Tyrell says:

    @dazedandconfused: ISIS continues to murder innocent people. There needs to be a plan t destroy ISIS.
    At some point the US will have to get more involved in Syria. Turkey may be getting ready to move into Syria.

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  49. An Interested Party says:

    ISIS continues to murder innocent people. There needs to be a plan t destroy ISIS.

    And what plan would you recommend? By the way, there are plenty of groups that murder innocent people all over the world…should we go after all of them?

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  50. dazedandconfused says:

    @Tyrell:

    What are you seeing that indicates to you the Syrian/Russian/Hezzi/Iran/et al coalition is failing?

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