What do you do when you face a problem and must respond, but the response necessary to fix the problem is unacceptable to you and those you lead? This is the quandary facing the United States with regards to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The recent capture of Ramadi by ISIS has led to a renewed chorus of pessimism from skeptics of America’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group by partnering coalition air power with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. While this approach has faced significant setbacks, the critics’ focus on the ebb and flow of the front lines is like missing the forest for the trees. They are forgetting the purpose of strategy, which is to prioritize and then align ends, ways, and means. Despite the president’s rhetoric to the contrary, the simple fact of the matter is that America’s strategy to combat ISIS is a red herring: it was never designed for success, and that’s OK.
The main problem with the critics’ analyses stems from their tendency to treat the destruction of ISIS as an isolated end goal of American policy in the Middle East. Instead of seeing ISIS’s defeat as the end goal, US policymakers must ask how ISIS’s destruction will serve broader strategic goals. For many analysts this poses a challenge because it means they have to actually define what US interests are not only in the Middle East but in general. It’s a lot easier to simply advocate for a series of actions – crush ISIS, remove Assad, support the Kurds – than to ask the more difficult followup question of “why?” The result is a foreign policy driven by slogans and the latest fad rather than critical thinking.
The discord between the Administration’s strategy and many critics, therefore, is due almost solely to the fact that President Obama has asked the difficult question of why. What are US interests in the region and how does destroying ISIS support them? Based on Obama’s words and actions, it’s obvious he has defined US interests in rather limited terms, such as: preserve the flow of oil, prevent terrorist safe havens, and reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
ISIS poses a threat in all of these areas, which is why the US had to respond in some manner, but the group is in no way enough of a threat that it justifies the effort it would take to truly destroy it. In this instance, the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates still hold true: anyone who “advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’.” Yet that is exactly what it would take to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in the near term, baring a miracle reinvention of Iraqi ground forces.
It’s hard to justify the deployment of a large American army overseas without an existential threat for it to fight, which is why the critics themselves have largely avoided advocating for such a position. Instead, they have offered tweaks to the current strategy, such as deploying more spies, increasing the number and intensity of air strikes, and entering into a quasi pact with Iran. It is unlikely these measures would have the desired effect. In late 2014 the CIA estimated ISIS has roughly 30,000 fighting members governing a swath of territory the size of Great Britain. However, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reported in War on the Rocks in February 2015, this estimate is probably far too low, with a total closer to 100,000 being far more realistic.
Given the size of its security forces and the territory it controls, not to mention the difficulty of operating in the failed states of Iraq and Syria, the alternatives proposed by the critics are equally divorced from reality. Faced with such poor options, it’s not a surprise the Obama administration settled on its current strategy. Yet this still doesn’t explain why the administration has said one thing and done another. Why say your strategy is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS but then not take the necessary action to do so?
As a global power, the US has to weigh the opportunity costs of action not just in terms of domestic programs but also in terms of other international priorities. At a moment when China and Russia are increasingly testing US resolve in countless geographic and functional areas, Washington simply cannot afford to get sucked into another expensive Middle Eastern adventure. Yet, because the US is the underwriter of global security, and because it has many interests at play in the region, the United States had to be seen acting in a bold and decisive manner. America’s allies in the Middle East would not tolerate anything less than the destruction of ISIS as the goal of any US action taken to counter the group. Likewise, domestic political pressure in response to the beheading of James Foley and pressure from allies to help stem the flow of foreign fighters rushing to join ISIS all contributed to the imperative to do something. And of course, there’s the simple fact that ISIS is indeed a threat to US interests in the region and deserves some kind of response.
The problem is that this imperative ranks lower than the other priorities of the Obama administration, namely to preserve US strength for confronting the far more pressing and significant threats from Russia and China. As such, the strategy chosen by the administration actually reflects a well-defined list of strategic priorities and an admirable balance between ends, ways, and means. When one compares the president’s rhetoric and actions on ISIS, it appears as if the strategy is failing. And in a sense, it is. But this dichotomy is purposeful and reflects a broader understanding of not only ISIS’s place in U.S. strategy for the Middle East but an even broader vision for how the Middle East should fit into a U.S. grand strategy. President Obama’s strategy for dealing with ISIS was designed for failure, and that’s OK.