Why Obama's ISIS Speech Is No Strategy: 5 Concerns Going Forward

If making a speech served as strategy, then FDR would have checked that block by declaring Pearl Harbor a day of infamy. But not so.

Long before the Japanese bombers and Zeros hit Pearl, Roosevelt’s team had put in months of hard thinking, planning and decision-making to prepare for the nightmare scenario of a two-front conflict with Germany and Japan. And after the outbreak of World War II, the lights in the Oval Office continued to burn long into the nights to hone the life-line of a guiding idea into a war-winning instrument.

Today, we still know little of President Obama's strategy to "destroy” ISIS. He articulated a guiding idea: if you threaten America, there will be no sanctuary. And we heard him pledge to conduct a systematic and sustained counter-terrorism campaign, hunting down terrorists wherever they are (including Syria, if necessary). But these are aspirations, not strategy.

With talk of a nine-member coalition, the White House has surely whipped something together. But we are left wondering if it will be good enough, and if Obama will see it through.

In the best case scenario, last night's speech should mark the start of a bipartisan consensus that the nation hasn't seen since the day after 9/11. That would be welcome development. For far too long the maxim “politics ought to end at the water's edge” has been a tagline for jokes by the Capitol Steps.

Almost everyone shares the president’s recognition that it’s most certainly in our national interest to help the Iraqi people drive ISIS out of Iraq and to limit the potential of ISIS to strike at the U.S. and its friends and allies. Polls suggest the American people support the mission. Congressional leaders in both parties seem anxious for the president to act. The Western allies are in. The Arab States want action. Obama can move forward with as much confidence as any American war leader that his people and our allies have his back.

Message to Mr. Obama: Don't squander a good thing.

Five concerns arise from what was—and wasn’t—said last night. The White House will have to address all five to reassure Americans and our friend abroad that the Oval Office is following a suitable, feasible and acceptable course to victory.

Concern #1:This is not about Syria.

The future of Iraq impacts on the vital national interests of the U.S. The future of Syria does not.  If ISIS is defeated and driven back into Syria, the president can go back to calling them the JV team. ISIS became a problem because it took over a third of Iraq. Solve that and… problem solved.

A weakened ISIS driven from Iraq will spend most of its time worrying about how it will survive being attacked by all sides in Syria. Further, there is no near-term military solution to Syria. As long as Iran and Russia are willing to prop up Assad, the Bathists will fight on.

It is conceivable that the U.S. might find some cause to undertake or support some limited military activities in Syria to help complete the mission of driving ISIS out and keeping it on the other side of the Iraqi border. Proportional, reasonable military tasks like that make sense, but that's different from maximalist mission of turning Syria into the land of milk and honey.

U.S. activities might involve aiding some rebel groups within Syria. That should be nothing new. It always made sense to provide some support to rebel groups to help defend innocents, prevent genocide and fight for freedom—as long as the U.S. took reasonable precautions that the aid was used responsibly, served a purpose, and didn't fall into the hands of Islamists. Nothing much has changed, rebels might serve some ancillary role in driving ISIS out of Iraq, but they can’t serve as a centerpiece of the U.S. strategy. That's unrealistic and unnecessary.

The Syrian civil war is related, but a sideshow to what has to be the main effort. Even if we wanted to undertake robust operations in Syria, it is doubtful that we have the intelligence and support networks necessary to conduct them effectively. The whole discussion on Syria is a bit of a strategic distraction.

Concern #2: Don't empower the Iranian regime and Assad.  

They are equal with ISIS on the evil meter. ISIS can and should be squashed without doing Tehran and Damascus any favors.  After all, Obama has already "helped" both bad regimes--and ISIS broke out anyway.  The chemical weapons “deal" with Assad allowed Moscow to prop up the Syrian strongman even more and relieved some of the international pressure on his regime. Meanwhile, the nuclear negotiations have given Iran’s mullahs much needed financial relief. Such “smart diplomacy” has only strengthened both countries and complicated the strategic chaos in the region.

Conversely, crushing ISIS won't be of much good to either of them. They both have plenty of enemies in the region left to make their life miserable. In fact, Obama should work to belittle ISIS and add to their misery at the same time.

Concern #3: Don't obsess about mission creep.

The president spends more time explaining what he won’t do than what he will. Mission creep becomes a problem only when war leaders have no idea what the mission is or no real appreciation for the force required to get the job done.  There is no need for massive U.S. combat ground efforts like there was during the invasion or the surge. The Iraqis, if adequately supported, can win back their country.

Moreover, it is uber irresponsible to spell out what you are not going to do.  That just makes your enemies’ job of planning easier because they know what to expect.

There are three aspects of the mission, in particular, where the president ought to be more, not less, aggressive. First, time is not our friend. Taking down ISIS at a cautious, leisurely pace makes no sense. It took them three months to take a third of Iraq.  It can't take three years to take it back. The longer ISIS roots in, the harder it will be to root them out.

Second, Obama needs to worry about cities like Mosul.  Airpower serves a much more limited role in urban combat.  Winning without destroying a city requires seasoned, disciplined troops.  The Iraqis don't have much of those.

Third, the pipeline is a problem. Getting a handle on the networks funneling bad guys in and out of Iraq has to be a priority.  The administration must focus on the "bottlenecks"—the countries of transit where the bad guys stage to go in and out of the theater.

Concern #4: Worry about what comes after.  

Driving ISIS out of Iraq is completely doable. But there needs to be a plan to keep them from coming back, as well as presenting a resurgence of a sectarian divide, a new campaign of terrorism, petty vendettas or more Iranian meddling.  

A good answer might look a lot like getting back to 2008, with its international force of sufficient size and authority to deter outside aggression, conduct counterterrorism operations and robustly defend itself.  That sounds like 30,000 troops and 10 years--maybe not American or all-American troops, but somebody responsible and capable. Obama needs to start wrapping his head around that one now.

Concern #5: Please don't play politics with Iraq.

Anytime a president ponders putting Americans in harm's way and there is time to consult, he ought to seek a nod from Congress. An Authorization for Use of Military Force would make perfect sense.

But pairing the AUMF with the CR on government funding makes no sense. An AUMF deliberation ought to focus solely on that issue; it should not become a wedge or hammer in debating the myriad of other policies considered in crafting a continuing resolution.  It would be the height of irresponsibility to bundle everything into one hurried haphazard debate. Congress ought to do better.

Further, the White House should not slam the CR with massive new bills for Iraq operations on highly controversial matters--like massive funding for the Syrian rebels. The CR will likely be short term.  There is time for the Congress to come back and deliberate big, additional funding requests in the course of preparing an appropriations bill or a longer term CR.  Should the White House repeat the tactic it tried for “dealing” with the border crisis--pressing Congress to whip out the check book without any serious deliberation—it would likely poison the well again.

If the president can manage these five concerns well, there is a war to be quickly won. If he can't address them, this rare American moment of unity may not last long. It’s really up to the president to act presidential.  All he has to remember is: he is sitting in Roosevelt's room.

 - James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, in charge of the think tank’s foreign and domestic policy studies.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Originally appeared in The National Interest