A Degrading Strategy?

by Jonah Shepp

President Obama’s statement yesterday that the US intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS raised a few questions about just what he meant by that. Spencer Ackerman observes that the statement adds to the conflicting rhetoric coming from the administration:

Obama’s goals have caused confusion in recent weeks. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said in the short term Isis can be contained, while Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, said the group must be “crushed”. Each of those endpoints require different military approaches for achieving them. Degrading and destroying an adversary are also two different goals. Degradation is a line short of destruction, a difference Obama appeared to split by suggesting his desired end state is a neutralized, unthreatening Isis.

As Keating points out, if the goal is indeed to “destroy” ISIS, that strongly implies that our air war in Iraq will expand to Syria:

It seemed obvious that continued videotaped killings of U.S. citizens would provoke a more steadfast response than what we’ve seen so far. The goal of the U.S. operation has now expanded from averting a “potential act of genocide”—or recapturing control of a critical dam, or even propping up the Iraqi government—to eliminating ISIS as a force entirely. The thing is, Obama’s own military commanders say that destroying ISIS is impossible without strikes against its strongholds in Syria, a step this administration has been extremely reluctant to take. U.S. strikes on Syria probably aren’t imminent—for one thing,more intelligence gathering is probably needed before the military would take such a step—but eventual military action against ISIS on the other side of the border is starting to feel inevitable.

But Hassan Hassan calls that an opportunity, arguing that the US can leverage it to effect a solution to the Syrian civil war, provided we don’t sell out the opposition and work with the Assad regime:

Local communities and armed groups, even if many of them might be currently displaced, have a direct stake in fighting the Islamic State. However, there are already voices within the anti-jihadist opposition condemning the potential airstrikes against the Islamic State because the perception is that they will be coordinated with Assad. An activist who led a campaign against the jihadist group for months, for example, said he would join the Islamic State if intervention comes at the expense of the rebels. … If Washington plays its cards right, it can use the fight against the Islamic State to spur broader political change in Syria. There is already regional will to defeat the jihadists — American action has the power to unite disparate groups around a solution that could end the bloodshed. As Obama develops his strategy to combat the Islamic State, he would do well to keep that in mind.

That would be the ideal outcome, of course: it’s certainly preferable to the massive PR disaster of an alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and that might even be what Obama’s thinking as he looks to build a regional coalition to fight this war. I’m not as sanguine as Hassan that it will work, though, and I suspect the president himself is leery of “owning” the effort to resolve the Syrian crisis, lest it fail. Rand Paul, on the other hand, thinks an alliance with Damascus (and Tehran) is a no-brainer:

In addition to Iran and Syria, Paul said he believes “the Turks should be enjoined” in the fight. … Paul charged that the chain reaction of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is what, in part, led to the rise of ISIS: “I think part of the reason they’ve gotten so large is that we have armed Islamic allies of theirs, Islamic rebels, in Syria, to degrade Assad’s regime, and Assad, then, couldn’t take care of ISIS. Really, I think what we’ve done, the unintended consequences of being involved in the Syrian civil war, have been to encourage the growth of ISIS by supporting their allies… I think it’s our intervention that really held Assad at bay, and Assad would have wiped these people out long ago.”

But Larison rejects the premise that we should, or even can, fight this battle at all:

When people talk about “destroying ISIS,” they are setting a goal that doesn’t seem to be realistic at an acceptable cost, and their policy would require committing the U.S. to a war in Iraq and Syria that would almost certainly ensnare the U.S. in that country’s ongoing civil war for years to come. Opposing such a poorly thought-through and ill-defined policy doesn’t amount to pacifism, as [Richard] Epstein tendentiously claims, and one doesn’t need to be anything close to a pacifist to see the dangers of overreacting to potential threats with military action on a regular basis. ISIS and other groups like it thrive on such militarized overreaction, which is one reason why it is doubtful that such a group can ever be thoroughly “destroyed” without creating more like it in the process.

Waldman, meanwhile, monitors the outrage machine as it combs through Obama’s rhetoric for signs of weakness and perfidy:

[M]embers of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.” If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.

Zack Beauchamp has a voxplanation for that:

Obama’s rhetoric on ISIS is confused because his administration’s policy on ISIS is confused by internal contradictions. On the one hand, Obama really does have long term ambitions to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, he recognizes that this is impossible in the near term, and that the best the US can do is lay the groundwork for ISIS’ eventual collapse. This essential tension in American objectives explains why Obama’s rhetoric and actual policy on the group are so at odds.

Anyway, Goldblog argues, Obama is much more of a hawk than he gets credit for being:

It is important to remember that Obama is perhaps the greatest killer of terrorists in American history. … Obama has launched strikes against Islamist terror targets in several countries. He has devastated the leadership of core al Qaeda, and just this week — as Washington opinion-makers collectively decided that he was hopelessly weak on terror — the president launched a (quite possibly successful) strike in Somalia against the leader of al-Shabab, a terror group nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State. And here’s the important bit — at the same time the White House is the target of relentless complaints that it has not done enough to combat Islamic State, Obama is actually combating Islamic State, launching what appear to be, at this early stage, fairly effective strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The rhetoric is not inspiring, but the actions should count for something.