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Latest Brussels Attacks Spark Challenges To U.S. Strategy In Syria


The terror attacks in Europe - in Belgium, Istanbul and Paris - all lead back to Syria. The country's been ripped apart by five years of civil war, allowing the self-declared Islamic State to flourish. Now President Obama says defeating ISIS is his top priority, but the fingerprint of ISIS on these recent attacks and the prospect of ones in the future has critics challenging the president to adopt a more aggressive Syria strategy, perhaps including U.S. troops.

Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and she's held positions in the State Department and National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Ms. Schake, thanks very much for being with us.

KORI SCHAKE: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Let's get to the high - hard one first. How many U.S. troops, and why don't countries in the region take that over?

SCHAKE: So countries in the region don't take it over because - A, it's hard. B, they're not confident that we will give them the kind of help they will need to succeed. And I think actually after leaving Iraq and our halfhearted efforts in Afghanistan, we are actually going to need to put troops on the ground in order for other people to be willing to put troops on the ground. As to how many troops, it's not clear. It depends on what you want to do and how fast you want to do it.

But remember, we put 50,000 troops into the Balkans when we were trying to end the war there, so we shouldn't be parsimonious about this. What you do with sending large numbers of troops is buy yourself a wider margin of error to succeed. And we ought not to be so hesitant and pretend we can solve this problem with small increments slowly escalating in the way the president is. The point of warfare is to change your enemy's calculus, and you do that by making large statements, not by making small, tentative ones.

SIMON: I notice, for example, you refer to the halfhearted effort in Afghanistan. I just want to note as I - before I go to the next question, 'cause I think they're related - that certainly a lot of Americans don't have the impression that the effort in Afghanistan was halfhearted at all. On the contrary, I hear a lot of Americans who might be listening to this interview asking right now, haven't we already lost enough men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan?

SCHAKE: Yes, we have taken casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if you want to solve this problem, you actually need to put military force against it. And the messages that we are sending to ISIS and other adversaries are that we are hesitant to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem, that we are hesitant to commit the force necessary to succeed at it.

And if we want to actually achieve the president's objective and destroy ISIS, we need to be a lot more committed to the outcome rather than setting arbitrary limits on our participation, whether pretending we're not in there with ground troops, limiting the number of ground troops or limiting the time that we have - will commit them to the fight.

SIMON: And - but what about, as President Obama suggested in a recent interview, the idea that we can see U.S. force rarely works in the Middle East and that's why he didn't choose sides in Syria to begin with?

SCHAKE: I think there are two things wrong with the president's approach. First, it underestimates the costs of not intervening, which are very high. And second, there are successful examples.

There's the 1991 Gulf War. Perhaps more importantly for Syria, there's the example of intervention in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq after the 1991 war where we declared a safe area, protected it for more than 10 years while Kurds in the area could grow successful leadership, and now they're the sectarian success story of Iraq.

Another useful example for Syria is the Balkans in 1990s, where so much ethnic cleansing had gone on in that civil war that the sectarian communities were effectively in different cantonments. And Syria is almost to that sad place now, and intervention in Syria on the model of the Balkans would be to protect specific areas in the country and allow people to migrate to those areas.

SIMON: Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, thanks very much for making the time for us this morning.

SCHAKE: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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