First, they are prioritizing speed. President Obama’s strategy envisioned a years-long campaign to defeat the Islamic State. While that approach had the advantage of affixing responsibility for outcomes on the countries of the region and incentivized them to develop the governing capacity essential to stabilizing the territory once regained, it paid the very steep price of humanitarian disaster for Iraqis and Syrians in the Islamic State’s control, escalating pressure on surrounding governments taking in refugees and buffeted by violence, decimation of moderate opposition within Syria, further radicalization within Western societies, and disaffection for our efforts by publics in the region. As Tillerson said, “Our end goal in this phase is the regional elimination of ISIS through military force.” The choices President Trump has made are dramatically picking up the pace of operations. So much so that some have begun to worry we will be the victims of battlefield success, winning before we have stabilization alliances and forces in place.
Second, they are committing the United States to a long-term involvement. President Obama prioritized minimization — leaving responsibility for the victory and subsequent stabilization on local allies. He patronizingly said “we can’t want it more than they do,” as though desire and capacity were one and the same, turned a cold shoulder on both territory and governance slipping away from Baghdad. By contrast, Mattis and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford both said flat out in congressional testimony that unlike the Obama administration’s accelerated withdrawal from the region, after the Islamic State fight concludes, the United States would leave troops in Iraq for a long period of time. Signaling our commitment to outcomes rather than imposing arbitrary timelines is a significant change in approach, one providing desperately needed assurance to those who share our objectives.
Third, they are clear about the priority being assisting the countries we want to win the wars now underway. The White House is less conflicted than the Obama administration about authoritarian tendencies, civilian casualties, and domestic human rights records of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other countries fighting insurgent upheavals and Iranian destabilization in the Middle East.