Shadow Government

A Simple Goal for the President’s Speech: Clarity On the Objective

This is a week for President Obama doing things he has not wanted to do. He has met to discuss his national security challenges with actual critics of his administration. Most of the critics were Democrats, even former members of his own administration, but there was some undeniable outreach across the partisan aisle. This is a ...


This is a week for President Obama doing things he has not wanted to do.

He has met to discuss his national security challenges with actual critics of his administration. Most of the critics were Democrats, even former members of his own administration, but there was some undeniable outreach across the partisan aisle. This is a welcome and overdue step, something the Bush administration came to do fairly extensively. The roster of folks we brought in to meet with senior advisors and even the president matches well the roster of eventual leaders in the succeeding administration. We will know the president is serious about learning from a broad swathe of critics when he starts to meet with the experts who will staff the next Republican administration. But for an extraordinarily insular White House, even the modest steps the president has taken are important and worth praising.

On Wednesday night, he will speak to the American people about the wars he has sent the military to fight, seeking to explain his strategy and mobilize support for it. I cannot think of a modern wartime president who has shown more reluctance to spend political capital mobilizing public and political support for the wars he is leading. I know that many in the administration wished the president had done more to shore up support for the Afghanistan war, but for a variety of reasons the president and his closest political advisors have chosen not to have him talk much about the wars — and when he did talk, to spend more time telling the American people what he would not do than he spent justifying what he would do. (Several years ago I speculated that one reason for the disconnect may be that the more the president talked about something, the lower public support for that something seemed to drop. I am not sure that correlation still holds.) 

These unusual steps are all prefatory to doing the thing Obama has most wanted not to do: escalate America’s involvement in the wars in the Middle East. If reports are reliable, the president will announce that he is authorizing a new and apparently expansive military campaign led by the United States and joined by a coalition of the willing to fight against the Islamic State.* The president has spent the last five-plus years telling the American people that the tides of war are receding and that we are winning the war against terrorists — and can keep on winning by doing less and less. Now, faced with the emergence of a new, determined enemy that his own advisors describe in apocalyptic terms, President Obama has apparently decided the threats to U.S. interests have grown so dramatically that they warrant a major military response.

In a week when the administration is breaking new ground, I propose that the president break still more by doing something else his administration has not been doing of late: identify a coherent set of objectives with respect to the threat posed by the Islamic State.

In truth, I would like to see a lot more. Beyond stating the objectives, it would be good if the president also identified the ways and means for meeting those objectives — and better still if the ways and means were commensurate. And, while I am at it, I suppose it also matters whether the objectives are sensible and commensurate with the actual threat.

But before the administration can run, it must walk — and so far it has just been stumbling. As this piece makes painfully clear, the administration’s rhetoric on IS has been all over the map, ebbing and flowing between absurd poles of hyperbole ("jayvee team" to "marching to the gates of hell"). Unfortunately, this problem has persisted even in recent days with the administration offering varying formulations of what the objective might be. Is it to degrade the threat? Is it to defeat the threat? To destroy the threat? To reduce it to a manageable problem? To contain it? 

The problem is that the administration has articulated all of these and perhaps more, each time talking about them as if they were functionally equivalent.

They are not. The different objectives require very different ways and means to achieve them. A few air strikes will "reduce" the threat, but to "destroy" IS is a work of many years and sustained ground operations. 

Now, I realize that the president and his advisors are speaking in a political communication context and so it is perhaps unrealistic to hold them to the standards of precision of military doctrine. But the disconnect between what the principals are saying and how those objectives might be translated into military action is profound and could prove critical in the months ahead.

It would be instructive for the president and his White House policymaking and speech-writing team to skim through the relevant Joint Doctrine publication to see just how different the end states and associated military tasks and missions are across the different forms of rhetorical flourishes the president and his team have offered (I have not yet found the military doctrine for "follow them to the gates of hell," however).

For even greater precision, check out how the U.S. Army would distinguish across the various objectives in play in the administration’s public commentary:

  • Contain: A tactical mission task that requires the commander to stop, hold, or surround enemy forces or to cause them to center their activity on a given front and prevent them from withdrawing any part of their forces for use elsewhere. 
  • Defeat: A tactical mission task that occurs when an enemy force has temporarily or permanently lost the physical means or the will to fight. The defeated force’s commander is unwilling or unable to pursue his adopted course of action, thereby yielding to the friendly commander’s will, and can no longer interfere to a significant degree with the actions of friendly forces.
  • Destroy: A tactical mission task that physically renders an enemy force combat-ineffective until it is reconstituted. Alternatively, to destroy a combat system is to damage it so badly that it cannot perform any function or be restored to a usable condition without being entirely rebuilt. 
  • Reduce: A tactical mission task that involves the destruction of an encircled or bypassed enemy force.

Interestingly, I was unable to find a formal military definition of "degrade," the term the president and his staff perhaps use most frequently, but it is certainly a term the military uses as well. It likely translates the same as its colloquial meaning: to reduce by some measurable increment. It is the easiest objective to reach — a single air strike "degrades" — and therein may be its greatest appeal.

Even though the strategy to confront IS will involve all elements of national power, it is a certainty that the military will be a crucial, game-changing tool. Therefore, it matters very much how the military understands and translates the president’s words into action. 

So my modest proposal: I urge the president’s speech writers to take the language they are drafting to describe the president’s objectives and vet it with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking for a precise response to how that objective would be translated into a set of military tasks and missions. And then only use the terms appropriate for the objectives this president actually is committed to resourcing, and thus committed to achieving.

*Footnote: Like President Obama, I prefer to call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but the FP editors have made the decision to credit them as the Islamic State (IS). The precision of editors cannot be defied, even if military doctrine can be.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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