Over the weekend, President Barack Obama revealed his intention to deliver a speech to the American people in which he will outline the pillars of his administration’s strategy to roll back the Islamic State and ultimately defeat it. In Monday’s New York Times, however, the bullet points of Obama’s strategy was revealed; roll back the Islamic State in Iraq, train and equip a functional Iraqi army, and eventually execute strikes inside Syria. The plan will take years to carry out, the Times reported, and will likely go beyond Obama’s presidency.
“The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation – destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria – might not be completed until the next administration,” the Times reported. “Indeed, some Pentagon planners envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months.”
Mr. Obama will use a speech to the nation on Wednesday to make clear his case for launching a United States-led offensive against Sunni militants gaining ground in the Middle East, seeking to rally support for a broad military mission while reassuring the public that he is not plunging American forces into a another Iraq War.
“It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a NATO summit last week. “But we’re determined it has to happen.”
Obama’s insistence that American ground forces not be involved in this fight against ISIS in numbers sufficient to call that a return of troops to Iraq is understandable, at least politically, but it is likely contributing to the length of time over which this operation will take place. Those will be three long years in which the richest terrorist organization on earth, flush with Western fighters, can plan and execute terror attacks on Western targets.
The press has noticed Obama’s recalcitrant refusal to consider the introduction of U.S. ground forces to this mission and are becoming curious about the rationale for this decision.
“You’ve ruled out boots on the ground. And I’m curious, have you only ruled them out simply for domestic political reasons?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the president. “Because your own– your own guys have said, ‘You can’t defeat ISIS with air strikes alone.’”
“Well, they’re absolutely right about that,” Obama replied. “But you also cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. We don’t have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.”
So, the answer is, ‘Yes, domestic reasons.’
This strategy will likely find support among an American public cautious about engaging in a new war in the Middle East, but only if it is successful. If the air war combined with local support networks fails to dislodge ISIS from northern and western Iraq, or if Syria proves a safe haven for Islamic State terrorist planners, the public is likely to sour on the cautious approach rather quickly.
In the interim, Obama has a long war to sell to the public in his speech on Wednesday. Perhaps he can hit a few notes which have worked in the past while trying to convince the American people of the need to embrace a years-long fight against a fanatical enemy.
Something like, “The struggle against Communism during the Cold War, the struggle against terror will be a generational conflict.” For Obama, who spends so much time seeking to prove that he and his administration are nothing like his predecessor, he might be well-served on this occasion by seeking to emulate him.