That’s not the only dash of cold water thrown by Barack Obama’s former Defense Secretary on the administration’s approach to ISIS, but it’s the most immediately relevant. In an interview this morning with CBS News, Robert Gates scoffs at the notion that the short term goal of degrading ISIS can be accomplished without US ground forces in combat to push ISIS out of territory they now control. He scoffs even more at the declared long-term goal, which he says the US has not yet accomplished in thirteen years of asymmetrical combat against al-Qaeda (via Daniel Halper):
“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Gates said. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”
That trap got blown open by Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Martin Dempsey yesterday. We’ll return to that in a moment, but Gates rejects the idea that the US can destroy ISIS from the air and through proxies — or really, at all:
Gates also says Obama’s promise to “destroy” the group may be unrealistic.
“I’m also concerned that, the goal has been stated as degrade and destroy, or degrade and defeat ISIS,” he said. “We’ve been at war with al Qaeda for 13 years. We have dealt them some terrible blows including the killing of Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think anybody would say that after 13 years we’ve destroyed or defeated al Qaeda.
“And so I think to promise that we’re going to destroy ISIS, or ISIL, sets a goal that may be unattainable, as opposed to devastating it, or whereas the vice president would put it, ‘following ’em to the gates of hell’, and dealing them terrible blows that prevent them from holding territory,” Gates said. “Those are probably realistic goals.”
Over the past week, the White House has used analogies to al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia to express their confidence in the “degrade and destroy” plan via remote control. The only problem is that we haven’t done that in either theater. What we have done is strike their leadership and keep them from controlling ground, as Gates mentions, but that’s it. Only in Iraq, while we occupied the country, did we come close to eradicating what is now known as ISIS, and only because the Sunni tribal leaders threw in with us in anticipation that we would remain and get them a fair deal in Baghdad. When we bugged out, AQI/ISIS returned as those same Sunni tribes got locked out of power sharing in the vacuum of our withdrawal.
Gates exposes the continuing incoherence of the Obama administration on ISIS policy, but it’s not just outsiders who are doing so. The contradictory messages coming out of the White House and its national-security team goes a long way to explaining why Americans largely support Obama’s ISIS actions but have little confidence in his leadership, as I argue in my column at The Week:
For most Americans, that means an actual war — certainly since the 9/11 attacks, and arguably before that, even if the U.S. did not want to acknowledge that al Qaeda had been at war with us. And the White House dance on war terminology did little to boost the confidence of Americans who have spent the last several months watching the genocidal terrorist army sweep across northern Iraq.
Still, the Obama administration contended that it didn’t amount to war-war because no American ground troops would be involved. Earnest explicitly told reporters in Monday’s press briefing that the option to put American combat forces on the ground in Iraq or Syria had been “definitively” ruled out. Earnest underscored this as a key difference between Obama’s strategy and the strategy pursued by President Bush.
The very next day, Congress heard an entirely different scenario from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Testifying in a Senate hearing, Dempsey said he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces” if the current strategy fails to destroy ISIS.
Furthermore, Dempsey said he might want to deploy American ground forces in combat to achieve specific objectives that Iraqi forces could not attain on their own. “To be clear,” Dempsey explained, “if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.”
To be very clear, those circumstances are almost unavoidable.
I interviewed National Journal’s Ron Fournier for my show yesterday and discussed the incoherence coming out of the White House. Fournier, who is skeptical of the competing claims on ISIS, nevertheless agreed that watching the shifting positions is poison to the kind of confidence any President would need when leading his nation in conflict:
Being very clear would at least be a good start.