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Washington’s World: September 15th – September 21st, 2014

Following his September 11th address to the nation on his strategy to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria, President Obama finds himself in a similar and equally uncomfortable position as his two immediate predecessors, namely having been elected to “end a decade of America's wars” now finds himself constrained by events to launch another one. Despite the speech’s martial rhetoric, our understanding from those who had a hand in preparing it is there is at best reluctant acceptance in the White House of the necessity for this action rather than enthusiastic embrace of it. We are being told that Obama will pursue his aims incrementally and via coalition solidarity rather than through “shock and awe”, with a close eye being kept on potential “mission creep.” Among military leaders there is confidence that once US air power is effectively linked with an improved on-the-ground weapons access and fighting capability by the Iraqi National Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga, together with tighter controls of infiltration routes via Turkey, then ISIL will be forced to give ground rapidly. At that point, US officials are seeking to bring about a more inclusive government in Baghdad together with a strong engagement by Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni states with their Sunni counterparts in Iraq to detach them from ISIL. The wildcard is Syria. US political, intelligence and military planners acknowledge that, unless ISIL can be dislodged in Syria, it will be impossible to defeat them. However, as one NSC official remarked to us, “the more we are involved in Syria, the messier of operations and objectives become.” One comfort for Obama is that he enjoys robust public and bipartisan Congressional support for his policy. Opinion polls suggest the public post-Iraq and Afghanistan “war weariness” to which we have referred many times may be shifting to a more assertive posture. This will be on display at the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly. If so, this may have implications for US relations with both Russia and China. With regard to the latter, last week's visit to Beijing by National Security Adviser Rice to prepare for Obama’s visit there in November encountered some rough moments in connection to US naval and airborne patrols close to the Chinese coast.  With US officials in no mood to accede to Chinese demands to pull back, there remain few indications that Washington-Beijing relations are improving. In advance of the November APEC summit, we expect Administration policy to harden that China should observe international norms of behavior, not unilaterally make up is own laws.  

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