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Juan Cole: Obama's Yemen/Somali Line Was A Feature, Not A Bug

What if Obama is a sharper reader of the Middle East than his critics give him credit for?

One line in President Obama's speech last night led to eye-rolling fromThink Progress and Bill Kristol alike:

This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Juan Cole, however, thinks that's a sign that the president is talking about containment rather than war, and may be correct to do so:

What if Obama wants to prevent the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and even Riyadh? What if he is privately skeptical about Baghdad recovering Mosul any time soon? ...

The best that can be said for US actions against AQAP in Yemen is that they may have forestalled AQAP and kindred groups from taking and holding some provinces. For instance, AQAP took over Zinjibar and some other towns in Abyan Province in 2011, but in 2012 a government offensive backed by US air power and aided by grassroots anti-al-Qaeda popular committees expelled AQAP from Abyan....

Obama hinted in his speech that he wants to help Baghdad and Erbil take back towns from ISIL just as Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen, took back Zinjibar. And just as AQAP hasn’t disappeared in Yemen, Obama expects ISIL to be around for a while. In essence, the Yemen policy has de facto yielded a sort of containment with regard to AQAP, though how successful it will be in the long run can be questioned.

What if Obama is a sharper reader of the Middle East than his critics give him credit for? He knows ISIL is likely not going away, just as, after 13 years, the Taliban have not. US military action may even prolong the lifetime of these groups (that is one argument about AQAP) even as it keeps them from taking more territory.

Don’t listen to his expansive four-stage program or his retooled, stage-managed John Wayne rhetoric. Look at his metaphors. He is telling those who have ears to hear that he is pulling a Yemen in Iraq and Syria. He knows very well what that implies. It is a sort of desultory, staccato containment from the air with a variety of grassroots and governmental forces joining in. Yemen is widely regarded as a failure, but perhaps it is only not a success. And perhaps that is all Obama can realistically hope for.


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Obama's job is not to try to rid the world of evil. Obama's job is to protect America and U.S. interests. With regard to ISIS, that means curtailing the group's ability to be a threat to our country and our interests. If Cole is right, and if something like this gets Obama's actual job done, I'd prefer that to a bloodlust-satisfying full-on quagmire of a war that inflames our enemies and inspires ISIS's current enemies in the Arab/Muslim world to rally around the group. Please read Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek on the subject of how many people hate ISIS -- but hate the U.S. more, and might become ISIS fans out of anger at us.

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