For one, the president cares less about defeating the Islamic State than he does about changing the nature of the U.S. role in the Middle East. We are not to be the dominant power there, but one nation among many partners, working toward mutually agreed upon ends when we can, and staying out of each other’s business when we must. These partners will include a rehabilitated Iran and, apparently at their insistence, Russia.
This new vision of a diminished American role in the region is the priority. Defeating the Caliphate takes second place. Indeed, seen from this perspective, decisions that might otherwise seem like pure incompetence start to reveal a certain self-consistent logic. But such prioritization is a tough sell to the American people, which is why the president and his advisers talk around it, euphemize, and generally avoid the topic.
A great irony is that the left spent the George W. Bush era, from 9/11 on, claiming that that administration’s justifications for its policies—weapons of mass destruction, the Freedom Agenda, and so forth—were little more than lies meant to cover up war profiteering and designs on Iraq’s natural resources. But, whatever the shortcomings in practice, policymakers at the time actually believed that Iraq had WMDs, and that Afghanistan (among other places) would be better off as a democracy. Now the liberals are in charge, and it turns out that they are the ones who can’t tell the truth about what drives their decisions.