In 15 minutes of remarks tonight , President Barrack Obama laid out his strategy to confront the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL.) The president’s much awaited strategy can be condensed to this:
- Train and equip local forces—whether Iraqi or Syrian—to fight ISIL on the ground. Provide additional American advisors to support these local forces.
- Use American airpower to support forces on the ground—including in Syria.
- Take necessary measures to harden America’s homeland defenses while also countering extremist ideology. And
- Respond to the humanitarian crises spurred by ISIL’s rampage and the Syrian civil war.
The strategy presented tonight bears a strong resemblance to the approach described by President Obama in his May commencement address to the graduating class of 2014 from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Things the President Did Well
- Stating an objective. The president said: “I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL….” You can parse that anyway you want, but the president gets high grades for simply stating the problem in clear language.
- Insisting on political progress in Iraq as a precursor for deeper American involvement. One reason ISIL was so successful in Iraq this summer was the condition of Iraqi politics.
- Recognized that the problem can’t be solved in Iraq or Syria alone. This is a transnational problem and will need to be addressed on both sides of the border.
- Follow the Money. The sources of ISIL’s financial sustenance have been well documented. The President rightfully prioritized cutting off the flow of seemingly endless financial resources to ISIL.
- Seal the Borders. Foreign fighters continue to pour into Syria from neighboring countries—especially Turkey. Turkish forces can and should make that transit much more difficult.
- Counter the ideology. I’ve gone on at length about both the Obama and Bush administrations failing to mount real counter-ideological campaigns. The plan described by the President tonight sheds no additional light on this element of the struggle–but he did mention it and for that he should get credit.
Things the President Didn’t Do Well
- Boasting. The President bragged that when Russia grew aggressive in Ukraine, the world looked to the United States. It was poorly conceived for the President to call out Russia now when in the same speech, he expressed his intention to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council to seek more international support against ISIL. In case anyone forgot, Russia still has a seat–not to mention a veto–on the Security Council.
- Describe the political end-game in Syria. And here’s the rub. Even if we get Iraq “right,” without a political end-game in Syria, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine how this campaign ends.
- Focused too much on tactical military operations. The President’s strategy, as described tonight, really is focused on the application of armed force. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate. But the conversation in this country would benefit from a President who took the time to educate the public about real strategic choices and not simply tactical options.
What seems most likely is a period of persistent conflict with the terrorist army known as ISIL. The American military will kill a lot of extremists. Our aircraft will destroy their pickup trucks and the equipment they’ve seized from routed Iraqi forces. After several years of conflict, American pundits–if not some leader–will declare ISIL dead. And that organization will, ultimately, be killed. But the extremist threat will continue on as long as the ideas that undergird ISIL go unchallenged.