President Obama rattled off a list of what has gone wrong in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria during a wrap-up press conference Monday following the G-7 summit in Germany. Although he didn’t come out and say it, he made clear that while ISIS militants are “nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic,” those fighting them — led by his Administration — are not.
Reading between the lines, he also suggested that responsibility for the poor showing thus far can be blamed on the Pentagon, Iraq and Turkey — but not him or his White House staff. It was a deft example of blame shifting that also has the consequence of relegating the presidency to the status of an also-ran.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis,” Obama said, in words that quickly ricocheted around the world. The comment unfortunately echoed one from last summer that sent aides and Pentagon officials wincing: “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he had said in August.
Obama’s remarks generated predictable ire from Republicans. “I fear his incomplete strategy has only emboldened ISIS and put our national security at greater risk,” said Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq.
More critically, it also sparked concern among retired military officers, increasingly echoing what some of their active-duty counterparts are saying privately. “Did anyone tell him that it’s his job to develop a strategy?” wonders Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine.
The U.S. has been debating its anti-ISIS strategy longer than Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War that drove his forces out, says David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who planned that 38-day air campaign. “In about the same period of time, Saddam had invaded Kuwait with half-a-million forces, and the U.S. had devised a strategy, deployed the required forces to execute it, and eliminated the Iraqi military as an effective force, removing them from Kuwait,” Deptula says. Noting Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent complaint that Iraqi forces did not have the “will to fight” for the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, Deptula adds that “it does not appear that our Commander in Chief does, either.”
Obama spoke of ISIS’s resilience following thousands of air strikes led by the U.S. (Monday’s listed here), where ISIS is defeated in one place only to surface in another. “We have made significant progress in pushing back [ISIS] from areas in which they had occupied or disrupted local populations,” Obama said. “But we’ve also seen areas, like in Ramadi, where they’re displaced in one place and then they come back in in another. And they’re nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic.”
Obama went on to contrast those characteristics with the sclerotic response of those battling ISIS. It was those particulars that proved jarring, a full year (as of Thursday) after ISIS troops drove Iraqi forces out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and 10 months after it began beheading American hostages:
Bottom line: the Pentagon is the bottleneck.
That is not the way to win friends in uniform. True, the Pentagon has no desire to get involved in another ground war in the region. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killed 6,849 Americans, will cost at least $3 trillion, and have achieved few of the goals set by their U.S. architects in exchange for that blood and treasure. In that way, though, the U.S. military is no different from Obama, who was elected promising to extricate the U.S. from those conflicts. Their co-dependency has created a tepid war plan, half-heartedly carried out.
Bottom line: blame the Iraqis.
Iraq remains a deeply divided society, pitting Sunnis against Shi‘ites against Kurds. With mistrust and bloodlust rampant among them, creating a unified national army to fight ISIS may not be possible in the short term. There was a realpolitik reason Washington tolerated what it often calls autocrats in polite company (known elsewhere in the world as dictators and tyrants) in Egypt, Iraq and Libya. Even when anti-American, they brutally tightened the lid on their sectarian pressure cookers. If the U.S. has decided it’s not wise to keep such potentates in power, it should hardly be surprised when the lids blow off.
Bottom line: it’s the Turks’ fault.
Turkey has performed poorly as the one NATO ally bordering Syria and Iraq throughout the anti-ISIS campaign. But with its own restive Kurdish minority, and fearing Syrian strongman Bashar Assad more than ISIS, it has been content to remain largely on the sidelines.
So there’s a germ of truth in each of Obama’s claims. But that shouldn’t keep the Commander in Chief from looking in the mirror when it comes to assigning culpability for the timorous anti-ISIS campaign and its lackluster results.