The Three Decisions Obama Has to Make in His Strategy for the Islamic State
Sometimes we are surprised when we hear our elected leaders utter the truth. That’s been the reaction to President Barack Obama’s admission last Thursday that "we don’t have a strategy yet" for dealing with the Islamic State (IS). What Obama said is manifestly true: The administration has so far failed to develop a strategy for ...
Sometimes we are surprised when we hear our elected leaders utter the truth. That's been the reaction to President Barack Obama's admission last Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet" for dealing with the Islamic State (IS).
Sometimes we are surprised when we hear our elected leaders utter the truth. That’s been the reaction to President Barack Obama’s admission last Thursday that "we don’t have a strategy yet" for dealing with the Islamic State (IS).
What Obama said is manifestly true: The administration has so far failed to develop a strategy for defeating the Islamic State. Doubtless the president’s military and civilian advisors have generated options, and doubtless those options have been explored and debated in the White House Situation Room. Yet Obama has yet to articulate publically a set of objectives to govern U.S. action, let alone a strategy to achieve them.
It would be wrong to think of strategy as some sort of cookbook or checklist. Still, there are at least three things that leaders need to do before settling on one, and an understanding of them may give us insight into the difficulties that the administration is encountering.
First, there is a need to understand the nature of our adversary and how that will shape the war upon which we are embarking. As Carl von Clausewitz counseled nearly two centuries ago:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.
There is, in other words, a need to recognize the threat that IS poses to the United States and its citizens, to U.S. allies, and to the region. Here at least some in the administration appear to have fallen prey to their own narrative. If the Bush administration can be accused of conflating al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the Obama administration can be accused of drawing too a thick line of demarcation between them. The argument, articulated most extensively by President Obama in his May 2013 National Defense University Speech has been that because al Qaeda Central is the only group that threatens the United States, and because the United States has been able to inflict considerable attrition on the al Qaeda leadership, al Qaeda stands on the brink of defeat. As I argued after that speech, such a narrative risked declaring a premature end to the War on Terror.
Predictably, subsequent administration statements regarding al Qaeda, its affiliates, and fellow travelers has been characterized by a cycle of triumphalism, dismissiveness, and hyperbole, rather than cold, calculating analysis.
Having undertaken a good net assessment of the situation, it is up to civilian leaders to determine the political objectives that will govern the use of force. Again, as Clausewitz counsels:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.
In my view, the goal of U.S. policy should be to crush the Islamic State. By contrast, there appears to be sentiment, both in the administration and elsewhere, that containing IS would be sufficient. However, containment is a flawed strategy when applied to jihadists, as the experience of Afghanistan in the 1990s should demonstrate. Granting jihadists a safe haven (particularly one on the territory of two sovereign states, Iraq and Syria) has already served as a magnet and training ground for jihadists from across the world. As al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri wrote prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:
A jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters.
Once a careful net assessment has been conducted and objectives determined, then it becomes time to develop a strategy to achieve those ends. Assembling a coalition to do so will be key, and the administration appears to be working on that. The president will also need to articulate that strategy to Congress and to the American people.
The process outlined above need not take long. It has been three months since IS seized Mosul and went on the offensive throughout northern and western Iraq. By comparison, three months after Saddam Hussein’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush had been able to assemble a broad-based international coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein, had developed a strategy to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and was well along the way toward deploying the forces needed to do so. Three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, the United States and its allies were well on their way to overthrowing the Taliban government of Afghanistan and ejecting al Qaeda from its safe haven there.
There is certainly a case for prudence, but not for lassitude or passivity, which signals weakness to friend and foe alike. To be successful, the president will need to do something that he has so far been reluctant to do: lead the United States in war.
Thomas G. Mahnken is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is a senior research professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and has served for over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
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