After the fall of Ramadi and Palmyra the headlines tell the story: “ISIS advance blows hole in Obama’s ISIS strategy,” “Obama is reportedly shifting his ISIS strategy,” “Obama’s ISIS strategy under fire in Washington,” and finally “White House won’t upend ISIS strategy.” It’s hard to escape the impression that there is something going on with Obama’s ISIS strategy, but what is that strategy, and what’s up with it? Let’s start with the definition of ‘strategy.’ According to Merriam-Webster, it is “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time,” or more specific “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war,” and also “the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions.”
Taken together, these three ingredients give us a chance to answer the question whether Obama has a strategy, and if so, what it is. In August 2014, when the US involvement with ISIS started, all this was still confusing to Obama, and he said “we don’t have a strategy yet,” something the White House immediately regretted. In an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, Obama corrected his mistake and stated the long term goal of US involvement as ‘degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS.’ This was followed by four key parts of the US strategy: 1. A systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIS; 2. Increased support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground; 3. Drawing on the US’s substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIS attacks; and 4. Providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians displaced by ISIS. One not so clearly stated but nevertheless important objective was to keep US combat forces, a.k.a. ‘boots on the ground,’ out of the fight with ISIS, and only allow a limited number of trainers and advisors to work with the ‘forces fighting ISIS on the ground.’
Nothing wrong with 1,3 and 4, but from the very beginning the problem was 2. Forces fighting ISIS on the ground are the Kurds, but only in defense of Kurdish territory, and the Syrian Army, assisted by Hezbollah, with which the US doesn’t want to be associated in any way. In Iraq, there are the Shiite militias, directed by Iran, with which the US doesn’t get along too well either, and the hopelessly ineffective Iraqi army that spends most of its time running, partly trained by Americans but commanded by corrupt officers who report to a government that is ultimately also controlled by Iran.
Not much to work with, and therefore from the beginning the US has operated on the illusion that it could somehow create ‘forces fighting ISIS on the ground’ that would be worthy of American support. One of those forces would be the ‘Free Syrian Army,’ which hasn’t been spotted around any battlefield yet and if it existed would probably rather fight Assad than ISIS. Another potential force are those Sunnis in Anbar province who are willing to fight ISIS, but who are so distrusted by the Iraqi government that it won’t give them weapons, for fear that they’ll immediately defect and join ISIS.
So back to the definition of strategy. Obama has a goal, but no forces to work with and therefore no ability to combat the enemy under advantageous conditions. He can muddle on, hoping that ISIS somehow implodes or that the Shiites take care of it, or send in another 100,000 troops and repeat all of Dubya’s mistakes. If you don’t have better choices than that, should you even be involved?