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Obama's Old Dilemma
POTUS: No “Complete Strategy” to Fight ISIS

In the wake of the fall of Ramadi, President Obama has been under increased criticism for the perceived failure of American military efforts against ISIS. Speaking earlier this week, he may not have helped himself. Politico reports:

Back in September, Obama created a political problem for himself by saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

On Monday, speaking at the end of a G-7 summit in Germany that included a meeting with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, he rearranged the words and added an adjective, but said the same thing about training Iraqi troops to fight ISIL: “We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said. […]

A major part of the problem, Obama was trying to explain, is that ISIL forces are “nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic,” compared with Iraqi troops, who aren’t showing up in the numbers they need to and aren’t ready for the fight when they do.

That’s compounded, Obama said, by an international community that might want to step in, but not before the Iraqis get their own situation together.

But that may well never happen. Waiting for the Iraqi government to coordinate an effective, nonsectarian fighting force has so far been like waiting for Godot. And so the President risks looking like he’s either willfully kicking the can down the road, or unable to formulate a way around this problem.

Yesterday a report emerged claiming that one of the five United States training bases in Iraq has not been sent a new recruit by Baghdad in four to six weeks. The United States is currently training about 2,600 members of the Iraqi military, but a grand total of zero are currently being trained at the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland of Iraq. An American defense official said that divisions in the government are very much real: “They still haven’t gotten over many of their sectarian divides, so that is creating some of the problems as well.”

In light of both this and President’s own pronouncements, the Obama administration’s announcement of plans to send 400 additional American military personnel as advisors to assist Iraqi troops in retaking the city of Ramadi is somewhat jarring. The plan also calls for the creation a new American military base in Anbar Province in Iraq. An American official described the the announcement as “an adjustment to try to get the right training to the right folks.” With 3,000 American troops, including trainers and advisors, already serving in Iraq, and sectarian divisions causing a coalition training base already built in Anbar to remain empty for weeks, it remains to be seen if more of the same can make a difference. It looks like doubling down on an incomplete strategy that has not yet produced success.

And as to the President’s claim that delays and missteps are the result of just taking the time to get the right plan together, lower officials aren’t buying it:

A military official also took issue with Obama’s claim that he was waiting for options from the Pentagon. “What the f— was that? We have given him lots of options, he just hasn’t acted on them,” the official told Fox News.

Ouch. It has not been a good week for the Administration on the PR front in Iraq; that much is clear. The question is, are these just PR gaffes—i.e. is the Administration aware of what a weak reed the Iraqi Armed forces are? After all, there are positive developments in the region—particularly the rise of the Kurds (with sounds of Saudi approval)—that an Administration looking to turn things around could take advantage of, even as it says the “right” things on Iraq. Or, on the other hand, does this represent a sincere doubling down on the ISF-centric strategy of the last few months?

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  • JR

    “And so the President risks looking like he’s either willfully kicking the can down the road, or unable to formulate a way around this problem.” I reject this false choice.

  • Arkeygeezer

    Does TAI have a strategy that does not involve a massive military involvement by the United States Armed forces! If we send in the troops, how can we inspire them? Uncle Sam wants you to fight and die for a united Iraq?
    The President’s strategy of containing the conflict to the middle east and getting on good terms with all of the parties involved, seems to be the only practical thing to do. The region is splitting up into three countries; a Shia dominated Iraq, The Islamic State (Sunni), and Kurdistan. Each of them receives wide popular support from their respective peoples. Deal with it!

  • Anthony

    Essentially as another commenter alludes, Iraq is a remnant of British diplomacy that covered up the underlying reality – ethnic groups and religious loyalties to Islam and major movements of Islam. We (the U.S.) inherited the British role in the region and after both collapse of the Cold War and the Iraqi War (Desert Storm) the sub-national groupings as well as latent pan-Islamism stirred. This is world of which many beseech a coherent strategy – not tactical solutions. A more poignant question would be can the United States honestly pacify a region now in a cauldron not withstanding complete strategy outlined.

  • Dan Greene

    >>”And so the President risks looking like he’s either willfully kicking the can down the road, or unable to formulate a way around this problem.”

    The key phrase here is “looking like.” Yes, it certainly looks that way to many–maybe most. But what about a third option? Suppose that Obama (or more accurately, the sum of forces that determine our policy, including Obama) doesn’t want to defeat IS at all–at least not now? Why does TAI assume that what looks like vacillation really IS vacillation?

    If we were successful in defeating/destroying IS in the short term, what would be the outcome? Answer: That success would have a significant negative impact on the widely held desire to overthrow Assad in Syria, and it would remove the force that is generating renewed strategic dependence on us in Iraq and, to the way of thinking of some, “containing” Iran. So, in practice, that success would hold little appeal for those who are promoting such policies. Of course, IS is sowing havoc and bloodshed on a broad scale, so it would not really do to acknowledge that we are co-opting them to achieve ulterior aims. Thus, strategic ambiguity would be called for. And what would that look like? Probably a lot like Obama claiming that we are still developing our strategy, which is just what he has been doing.

    It’s not clear whether Obama is truly the driver of the policy–the decider in Bush’s idiom–or whether he is conceding to the demands of powerful factions inside and/or outside the government. But it doesn’t really matter (except insofar as it might shake the faith of those who have antiquated notions about how our foreign policy is actually determined and implemented.)

    I think very likely that this is what’s going on. I don’t like this strategy, despite its obvious logic, mainly because I don’t buy into its premises, i.e., that Iran is the primary threat in the Middle East and that Syria under Assad is merely its asset and a collateral threat. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a strategy. I know the TAI guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but it’s hard to believe that they can’t grasp this elemental logic.

    I don’t mind playing the enemy-of-my-enemy game. It can be useful. But, as I said, I don’t buy the premise of the strategy in this case. I think that with a very different strategy since 2003, we could be in much better shape strategically and have avoided being complicit in the deaths of well over a half million people in what we now have to call the Iraq-Syria theater. Our 2003 invasion of Iraq and our immediate support, starting in 2011, for the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria have been disastrous for the region and together have led to the creation of the strategic space in which IS gestated and emerged. Realpolitik does NOT mean the attempt to impose fantasy-based cultural and strategic change on the region whose outcome could be (and was) easily anticipated. Nor does it mean reveling in our capacity for fomenting regional chaos for ends that are either self-destructive themselves OR could have been attained by much less costly and less grandiose policies. Our policy for the last 12 years (and today) has been irrational on the higher levels even when, as in this case of Obama’s probable strategic ambiguity and clever misdirection plays, it has an evident lower-level logic.

  • animalmother

    the latter – Obama never had any intention to ‘defeat’ ISIS just like he never had any intention to ‘win’ the war in Afghanistan or stay in Iraq if there was a sound reason why we should stay which of course there was – this is all deliberate – this is the world as Obama and his ilk imagine it should be, with Amerce ‘leading’ from behind – which is a euphemism for the deliberate weakening of America.

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