Shadow Government

Obama’s Problem with ISIS Isn’t an Incomplete Strategy — It’s a Failing One

President Obama is under fire for explaining the lack of progress in the fight against the Islamic State on the fact that he does not “yet have a complete strategy.” This apparently candid concession echoes the one he made 10 months ago when he acknowledged that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to confront the Islamic State. ...


President Obama is under fire for explaining the lack of progress in the fight against the Islamic State on the fact that he does not “yet have a complete strategy.” This apparently candid concession echoes the one he made 10 months ago when he acknowledged that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to confront the Islamic State.

Critics are understandably lambasting the president for the apparent dilatoriness, and I have some sympathy for the critique. If you begin the clock with President Obama’s remarkable January 2014 dismissal of the Islamic State as a “jayvee threat” — something the White House still pretends the president did not say, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and trace the president’s response to the growing Islamic State threat, the charge of delinquency is almost impossible to deny.

Yet, in this instance, I think the critics and the president are both wrong. The problem is not an absence of strategy, it is that the strategy that does exist is failing and the administration is not yet willing to admit that fact.

The strategy is pretty self-evident: U.S. forces are operating under stringent self-imposed limitations so as to incentivize local partners (the Iraqi government, Sunni tribes, and moderate rebels in Syria) to do more. The United States is prepared perhaps to do a bit more if local actors do a lot more, but if local actors do not step up, the United States is not prepared to do more. On the contrary, the United States is prepared to accept hitherto “unacceptable” setbacks — the fall of Mosul, the fall of Ramadi, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the regional expansion of Iranian-backed terrorist organizations and militias, and on and on — rather than intervene more decisively.

This is a recognizable strategy. There is even a catchy name for it: leading from behind.

The problem with the strategy is that it is not working, in the sense of advancing U.S. interests in the region and achieving the stated objectives (“destroy and degrade ISIL”). In the absence of U.S. leadership, local partners did not step up quickly enough to stop the Islamic State when the threat could be easily contained. Now rolling back the group’s advances requires more punch than the locals can deliver without a substantial increase in American commitment. But under President Obama’s strategy, that cannot happen because the strategy is premised on the assumption that American commitments produce less partner activity (because they encourage the partners to free-ride on us) whereas stepping back incentivizes the partners to step up. The strategy literally assumes away the obvious alternative recommended by the more hawkish critics.

Figuring out that you are pursuing a losing strategy is more difficult than outsiders might believe. I am in the middle of a major research project exploring the decision making behind President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge strategy change and the new material the project is producing is so far confirming what earlier studies found: that President Bush’s decision for the surge required him to make at least two analytically distinct (yet both very difficult) determinations.

First, it required that he conclude that the existing strategy was likely leading to failure, not success — that is, that the strategy could not be salvaged with a few tweaks or with gutting it out. It is hard for an administration to admit this because (a) serious and responsible voices within the administration have likely been arguing in favor of the existing strategy, (b) the administration itself has been publicly defending it on these terms, and (c) many of the critics can be dismissed as partisans who offer nothing more serious and compelling as an alternative.

Second, it required that he conclude that there was an alternative strategy that had a good enough chance at success that it was worth undergoing the wrenching operational and political difficulties of making a major strategic shift in the middle of a war. This, too, is more difficult than one might think for it is logically possible to have a failing strategy and not have any alternatives that are more promising (or more enough promising) to warrant a shift. Some failures are failures of necessity.

President Bush reached both of these determinations in time to rescue his Iraq strategy. Because he did, he handed over an Iraq that was on a profoundly different trajectory than the one it had been on. Indeed, the reversal was so great that his most bitter critics — the Obama administration — proudly boasted of the new Iraq as a great success just a few years into Obama’s tenure.

Obama has been slower to reach that determination and it is getting very late for him to figure it out now. The evidence that the strategy is failing would seem overwhelming to almost everyone but the most blinkered administration spinner. Yet it is just possible that insiders know something that we outsiders are missing. If they have a better case for why we should stick with the existing strategy, I would like to hear them make it — and in doing so, engage more honestly with their critics. Whether there are better alternatives is a tougher call, but it is not implausible since the existing strategy is hobbled by arbitrary restrictions that point rather clearly to a failure of choice.

Perhaps President Obama’s statement that he still lacks a complete strategy is his way of inching towards the kind of strategy review the situation demands. I hope that is the case. The alternative — that Obama is doubling down on a strategy that is failing in the hopes that it doesn’t completely fail until the next president’s watch — is a damning one.

There is one more factor to consider. Conceding that your strategy is not working can have a very debilitating effect on morale, especially military morale. Concerns about this were a big factor in shaping the way President Bush reached the decision on the surge. Ironically, President Obama is incurring the very same morale problems with his penchant for claiming that he lacks a strategy, so he might as well pay those costs in the service of real strategic innovation rather than in the service of political posturing.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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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