Rally point: Should Obama start talking about combat forces now?

“We are going to do what is necessary,” Barack Obama declared in his short statement on US airstrikes in Syria, “to take the fight to this terrorist group.” Does the President really mean that? If so, a number of voices are now urging Obama to stop taking options off the table — including the use of ground troops:


Meanwhile, we will move forward with our plans, supported by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to ramp up our effort to train and equip the Syrian opposition, who are the best counterweight to ISIL and the Assad regime.  And more broadly, over 40 nations have offered to help in this comprehensive effort to confront this terrorist threat — to take out terrorist targets; to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian opposition fighters who are going up against ISIL on the ground; to cut off ISIL’s financing; to counter its hateful ideology; and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region.

Last night, we also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorosan Group.  And once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.

I’ve spoken to leaders in Congress and I’m pleased that there is bipartisan support for the actions we are taking.  America is always stronger when we stand united, and that unity sends a powerful message to the world that we will do what’s necessary to defend our country.

The problem, however, is that we are not pursuing a “comprehensive” strategy, even if we do have a broad coalition in place for what we are doing at the moment. Not a single member of this coalition has agreed to put combat forces into position to follow up on any gains made against ISIS from these strikes. Ron Fournier cheers the long-awaited engagement of Obama in the fight against ISIS and wants to root for success, but isn’t seeing a White House strategy with victory in mind:


ISIS can’t be eradicated from the air, and Obama has unwiselyannounced to the world that he won’t let the United States be dragged into a ground war. That means his coalition is only as good as the ground troops it produces. Thanks to the Pentagon and U.S. taxpayers, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE have well-equipped and well-trained militaries. Will they deploy any troops against ISIS? Will voters in France and Britain, no less war-weary than the U.S. public, allow their leaders to follow Obama into the Middle East?

My final question goes to Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels, action long sought by GOP and Democratic hawks, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just a few weeks earlier, Obama had dismissed the notion that Syrian rebels could be an effective force as a “fantasy.” Nobody at the White House has adequately explained when and why fantasy became policy.

All of these questions remain relevant, as do doubts about the president’s plans and his leadership skills. In the months and years of fighting ahead, the answers will come, and the doubts addressed. In the meantime, Obama’s critics, including myself, should give the president’s plan a chance to work. Criticism is fine and fully American, but the bar is a bit higher—the benefit of doubt a bit deeper—when the commander in chief deploys troops.

We should root for the president and his success, because there are no easy answers in the Middle East. There is no obvious right way or wrong way to face a threat like ISIS, which makes any decision ripe for failure—and Obama is the guy we picked to make these choices.


I’m rooting for Obama’s success, too, because we don’t have any other options and this is too important for partisan considerations. If ISIS melts away after a few airstrikes nevermore to be seen again, I’ll be glad to offer my congratulations. That’s sheer fantasy, though, and a lengthy essay at The Daily Beast explains why. ISIS’ strength is its ability to act strategically as well as tactically, and everything they do aims at acquiring and holding territory they can reasonably expect to sustain:

ISIS’s battlefield success and political resiliency depend on a sophisticated but partially decentralized structure that recommends a different form of targeting than in past U.S. decapitation efforts against al Qaeda and its affiliates. ISIS’s offensive success, especially in Iraq, is attributed to a mix of subversion, guerrilla warfare, and light infantry tactics yielding a surprisingly effective irregular warfare strategy. Its defensive strength derives from its robust local and international recruiting efforts and its success at retaining guerrilla resilience even as it undertakes a state-building project.

Understanding how ISIS pairs differing tactics with specific military objectives reveals where U.S. and allied airpower can impede ISIS’s operations and where it will have a secondary or negligible role in support of the operations of local ground forces. ISIS’s organizational sophistication and the battlefield tactics it employs provide unique roles for airpower as well as challenges for the types of campaigns the United States has waged against other insurgencies and terrorist networks. …

The more familiar but difficult medium- to long-term task of degrading ISIS’s operational leaders and eventually its high leadership will take well-disciplined, organized ground forces to push out ISIS guerrillas entrenched among population centers where airpower cannot remove them. It also will take major improvements of the quality of intelligence, especially in Syria, where U.S. relationships are least developed and its forces are most unfamiliar with the local environment. Strategically, airpower will play a supporting role to efforts to organize and coordinate ISIS’s rivals on the ground to retake territory permanently and contain it as a regional threat. Even as ISIS’s rapid offensive gains have proved limited and vulnerable to modern air attack, the group’s capabilities as a defensive and clandestine guerrilla force—and its decentralized military structure—will deny foreign airpower a rapid or comprehensive victory in the long-term effort for its defeat.


Yesterday I linked to Tony Blair’s explanation of the exact same prescription for victory over Iraq. In my column for The Week today, I return to Blair’s truly comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS, which will take a large Western commitment to restore confidence in a long-term, secular solution for the religious conflicts created by Islamism:

According to The New York Times, it hasn’t had anywhere near the ISIS-degrading impact promised by President Obama. “After six weeks of American airstrikes,” David Kirkpatrick writes, “the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country.”

We can blame, at least in part, the lack of participation against ISIS on the ground by Sunni tribes. Those tribes once backed the U.S. in the fight against ISIS’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, when Bush put the “surge” into effect and committed to the fight against the terrorist network, while reassuring the Sunni tribal leaders that the U.S. would commit to ensuring their participation in Iraqi self-government. Our withdrawal taught them a lesson about the squishiness of American promises, and it’s not surprising that a few weeks of airstrikes wouldn’t change their long-term forecasts about the balance of power in the region. Kirkpatrick reports that they aren’t much more impressed with new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi than they were with Nouri al-Maliki, and want a completely new, non-sectarian “technocrat” government instead. …

The West has to recognize, Blair urges, that Islamism is a spectrum of thought in the region, and that it is wholly “incompatible with modern economies and open-minded, religiously pluralistic societies.”

In places where there is a debate between Islamism and pluralism, Blair writes, “there is a side we should take. And we should do so with energy, because they need our support.” Trying to make deals with so-called moderate Islamists — like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — is sheer folly. “We should not make the mistake of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as if it were merely an Arab version of the Christian Democrats,” Blair writes. “It isn’t and there is little sign it ever will be.” Pretending that these are neutral-balanced competing value systems will be a fatal mistake, and already has been proven so in Egypt.

This is the larger war the West must fight, a war of enlightenment, ideas, and values as well as an unavoidable military confrontation, both of which need to be engaged broadly — not just tactically when the atrocities mount so high as to defy impassiveness. Blair offers this both as a prophecy of victory in his confidence that the West can get this right, and a warning as to the stakes if we don’t. The question will be whether Blair is still cursed as a Cassandra or finally given the consideration due his experience — and his track record.


If the air strikes over the last 24 hours give Obama some political breathing room, perhaps it also leaves room for a retreat from the oft-repeated “no ground troops in Iraq” mantra that the President has used since being forced to take ISIS seriously at all. This would be the moment to reopen that debate, and perhaps Obama gave a hint of that with his closing statement, committing to “do what is necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group.” If it’s necessary to put boots on the ground as part of a coalition of nations to destroy ISIS — and with other coalition partners unlikely to do so without American participation — will Obama do it?

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David Strom 6:00 PM | February 27, 2024