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Marco Rubio's plan to defeat ISIS, explained

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Marco Rubio continues to lag Donald Trump and Ben Carson in national polls, but he seems to be emerging as the closest thing we have to a consensus candidate of the Republican Party establishment. And Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has the deepest ties of any GOP contender to the world of orthodox conservative foreign policy thinking.

The result is that Rubio has released a plan for countering ISIS that goes beyond facile criticisms of the Obama administration and offers a detailed and rigorous look at the conservative approach to the issue.

The surprise, if all you listened to is Rubio's rhetoric, is that his plan shares some of President Obama's key premises about the basic dynamics in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, Rubio is prescribing a very different policy — one featuring American participation in a multifaceted ground war in two countries. Yet he's driven to this very different conclusion not by a different assessment of ISIS but by a different broad philosophy. Where Obama tries to construct a national security strategy that conserves American power, Rubio believes that aggressive use of American power will only make us more powerful.

Rubio's seven-point plan for ISIS

Rubio describes essentially a seven-point strategy for destroying the ISIS mini state in the Iraq/Syria borderlands:

  • Deploy forward air controllers on the ground in Syria and Iraq to help US air power offer targeted close air support to local forces.
  • Embed US special operations troops at the battalion level to assist Iraqi troops "and other local forces."
  • Ramp up training of anti-Assad rebels in Syria and establish "safe zones" in which the US military would protect anti-Assad rebels.
  • Directly arm Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces.
  • Urge the Iraqi government to grant more autonomy to Sunni-dominated provinces.
  • "Push back against Iranian influence in Iraq, which only stokes further conflict."
  • "Advocate on behalf of and protect ethnic and religious minorities throughout the region."

Rubio is to an extent downplaying the implications of this, but what he's saying is that American troops need to be fighting on the ground, especially in Iraq. And he wants them fighting on multiple fronts — mostly against ISIS, and mostly in Iraq, but to an extent against Syrian government forces and their Iranian allies. He's clearly hoping that a relatively small number of troops could get the job done, but he's setting them up for a very large job that might well require a larger and longer-lasting presence than the most optimistic scenarios would imply.

Where Rubio and Obama agree is that the underlying problem is that the region has become excessively polarized between the anti-Sunni policies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, both backed by Iran, and the dangerous radicalism of ISIS, which is a Sunni group that feeds on anti-Sunni discrimination.

Obama and Rubio's answer to this problem is that the Sunni-populated regions currently dominated by ISIS need to be governed by moderate Sunni forces who will be acceptable to the local population's sensibility but also acceptable to the interests of the international community.

This view is also conducive to the sensibilities of America's main allies in the region — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan — all of which are Sunni-majority countries with Sunni-dominated governments that perceive themselves as fighting a two-front regional conflict against both Iran and international terrorist organizations.

Should America send ground troops back into Iraq?

Most conservatives believe that withdrawing American troops from Iraq in 2011 was a mistake that led to the rise of ISIS, and, not coincidentally, the most important idea in Rubio's plan is the battalion-level embedding of US special forces in the Iraqi theater of the conflict. That means real ground combat for American soldiers, with all the risks and opportunities that presents.

Obama's view is that sending large numbers of American ground forces into Iraq would be costly and essentially pointless. The Iraqi military is already better funded and better equipped than ISIS forces. It struggles to defeat ISIS because the Iraqi state doesn't have its act together in terms of sectarian and ethnic divisions. As Obama told me in January, the White House's view is that military forces would in practice serve as a substitute for the kind of political reconciliation that is needed:

So, in Iraq, when ISIL arises, if you think you have no constraints, no limits, then I have the authority as commander in chief to send back 200,000 Americans to re-occupy Iraq. I think that'd be terrible for the country. I don't think it'd be productive for Iraq.

What we've learned in Iraq is you can keep a lid on those sectarian issues as long as we've got the greatest military on Earth there on the ground, but as soon as we leave, which at some point we would, we'd have the same problems again. So what I said was Iraqis have to show us that they are prepared to put together a functioning government, that the Shia majority is prepared to reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis, and that they're credibly willing to fight on the ground. And if they do those things, then we can help, and we're going to have a 60-nation coalition to do it.

Obama's view is that on the Iraqi side, if you got the politics right then a substantial American military deployment would be unnecessary, while if you don't get the politics right, no American military deployment would be sufficient.

Rubio and Obama have a big disagreement about Iran

On the Syrian side of the border, the disagreement between Obama and Rubio is arguably more about Iran than about ISIS. Both essentially agree that ISIS cannot be defeated until the Syrian civil war draws to an end, because as long as Assad and rebel groups are fighting one another, neither will focus on fighting ISIS. And the key to the continuation of the Syrian civil war is Russian and (especially) Iranian support for Assad's regime.

On this score, Rubio has an uncomplicated view. If the US did more to support anti-Assad forces, Assad would lose faster, and the civil war would end paving the way for US-backed moderate rebels to pivot their attention to ISIS and usher in an exciting new era of peace and prosperity.

The real-world concern about this is that a greater US presence in Syria would only encourage even more Iranian involvement. Hard-liners in Tehran would gain influence, as Iranians viewed the war in Syria as a necessary fight against American imperialism. Iranians could see an opportunity to repeat the experience of the Iraq War, when Iran supported Shia insurgent groups so as to bog down the US.

To Rubio, the idea of ratcheting up conflict with Iran in Syria doesn't seem like a particularly bad idea. After all, he's already committed to undoing the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran with a program that calls for new unilateral sanctions and "a credible threat of military force if Iran decides to ramp up its program" in response to the collapse of the diplomatic deal.

If your regional strategy already calls for an escalating economic and military confrontation with Iran, then adding a Syrian element to the tensions seems like a low-risk, low-cost move. The Obama administration, by contrast, has no interest in tearing up its own nuclear agreement with Iran and would like to see a multilateral diplomatic deal to secure a ceasefire in Syria rather than open up a new front of conflict.

The hawkish worldview: Strength begets strength

The core underlying differentiator between Obama and Rubio on ISIS isn't really a disagreement about ISIS or about Iraq or about Syria. Rather, it's Rubio's intellectual and emotional investment in a worldview that holds that American strength begets more American strength, versus Obama's more literal view that expenditures of American resources in one area means that fewer resources are available in other areas.

Rubio thinks that in addition to deploying ground troops to Iraq, intensifying airstrikes in Syria, and preparing for possible war with Iran, we should be getting tougher on China. And getting tougher on Russia. And, for good measure, getting tougher on Cuba and on the Palestinians.

Rubio's view is that this isn't biting off more than we can chew because a foreign policy grounded in toughness and moral clarity will create a situation in which "our enemies and our adversaries will not dare test us, because they know that if they do they will not prevail."

By making it clear that we are willing to do whatever it takes, we will intimidate foes and bend them to our will. On that account, there is no opportunity cost to pouring additional resources into the fight against ISIS, because success will establish American credibility and increase our strength.

Obama, by contrast, clearly views entanglements in the Middle East as crowding out other priorities. He told me in January that by shifting to a "smaller footprint" in Iraq and Afghanistan, his administration has been able to "get at the actual problem" while conserving resources in a way that "frees us up to be able to send a team to prevent Ebola" and address other global crises. From this view, getting sucked into open-ended military commitments is the worst mistake we can make. An ISIS or an al-Qaeda can murder Americans but has absolutely no ability to defeat the American military or directly cripple our economy. What such a group can do is bait us into costly adventures that drain our resources and polarize opinion around the Muslim world. To Obama, the crucial thing is to avoid overreactions that will pull us deeper into the quicksand. To Rubio, the imperative is exactly the opposite — to show that we are willing to go further and do whatever it takes to prevail.