Friday, September 05, 2014

Contain, degrade, destroy ISIS? It's a timeline

[Update 9/5, 12:15 p.m. ET: in a press conference in Wales that just ended, Obama added "ultimately" at least thrice to the phrase "degrade and ultimately destroy" and variants, reinforcing the 'timeline' theme below.]

I'm not qualified to assess the efficacy of Obama's past or current conduct of policy with respect to Syria and Iraq. But I am well attuned to Obama's rhetoric and the thinking it reflects. On that basis, I can tell you that the media angst over whether he's signaled intent to contain, degrade or destroy ISIS is a lot of hooey.

Current U.S. policy, as Obama has described it and to the extent it can be disclosed, is pretty straightforward. U.S. air power will contain ISIS, and begin to degrade its warmaking capacity, while regional actors get their act together, with the help of U.S. prodding and incentives. To the extent that they do so, efforts will escalate to destroy ISIS.

Contain, degrade and destroy are stages in a process, timeline uncertain and dependent on strategic goals such as winning Sunni Iraqi buy-in to the new government and getting Gulf states to act in concert in finding viable Syrian opposition to back (while also, I would guess, working to leverage and to some extent covertly coordinate with warfare against ISIS conducted by Iran and Syria).

It's true that Obama's rhetoric has served to temper more overheated pronouncements by Biden, Kerry and others. And there was a real division between Powers' denunciation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Obama's refusal to call it that. But his own rhetoric with respect to Iraq, Syria and ISIS can be cast as  inconsistent or conflicted only if you break apart the implicit and contingent timeline he's outlined with the help of various verbs.

This "analysis," such as it is (really just a read-back), should probably have been interspersed with Obama's discourse. But look en bloc at how he outlined his, um, strategy in Wednesday's press conference in Talinn and judge for yourself whether it's not a coherent narrative:
But what I’ve said from the start is, is that this is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition.  Because of what’s happened in the vacuum of Syria, as well as the battle-hardened elements of ISIS that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq during the course of the Iraq war, it’s going to take time for us to be able to roll them back.  And it is going to take time for us to be able to form the regional coalition that's going to be required so that we can reach out to Sunni tribes in some of the areas that ISIS has occupied, and make sure that we have allies on the ground in combination with the airstrikes that we’ve already conducted.

So the bottom line is this:  Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.  In order for us to accomplish that, the first phase has been to make sure that we’ve got an Iraqi government that's in place and that we are blunting the momentum that ISIL was carrying out.  And the airstrikes have done that.

But now what we need to do is make sure that we’ve got the regional strategy in place that can support an ongoing effort -- not just in the air but on the ground -- to move that forward.

And last week when this question was asked, I was specifically referring to the possibility of the military strategy inside of Syria that might require congressional approval.  It is very important from my perspective that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that's going to work, that we’re very clear on what our objectives are, what our targets are; we’ve made the case to Congress and we’ve made the case to the American people; and we’ve got allies behind us so that it’s not just a one-off, but it’s something that over time is going to be effective.

And so the bottom line is this, Ann -- it’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men.  More broadly, the United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents.  And that's going to take some time, but we’re going to get it done.  I’m very confident of it.
 Oh, and as ISIS loses nation-state status, rumps and reincarnations will remain to be contained:

Q (Ann Compton):   Did you just say that the strategy is to destroy ISIS, or to simply contain them or push them back?
PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.  And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities.  You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.

But what we can do is to make sure that the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression that we’ve seen out of ISIL that terrorizes primarily Muslims, Shia, Sunni -- terrorizes Kurds, terrorizes not just Iraqis, but people throughout the region, that that is degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.

That's called "nuance." And realism.

UPDATE 9/5, 12:15: When asked in the just-ended press conference about any alleged gap between "degrade" and "destroy," Obama elaborated the timeline by way of analogy to the war against "core" al Qaeda. To paraphrase loosely from memory, he said that with groups like al Qaeda or ISIS, you first ring-fence, i.e., contain, degrade their capabilities, then shrink the area in which they operate and kill the leadership.[Update 9/6: here's the passage recalled here, courtesy of the Times:
“You initially push them back, you systematically degrade their capabilities, you narrow their scope of action, you slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control, you take out their leadership,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference here. “And over time, they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could.”

Update, 9/6: I've reread the transcript of Obama's 8/31 "we don't have a strategy yet" press conference. He was about as precise as a person could be in laying out a sequence of actions contingent on one another -- i.e., military actions preceded by political actions, first in Iraq and then in Syria. The intent to "root out the cancer" is clear. My prior post on that presser emphasized the extent to which Obama was working to put the onus for political change on Iraq and on all potential allies in the region with regard to Syria. It focused mostly on his opening statement. Here I'll just highlight some time markers in his response to Chuck Todd's question whether he would go after ISIS in Syria:
Well, first of all, I want to make sure everybody's clear on what we're doing now because it is limited.

Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected.

Where we see an opportunity that allows us, with very modest risk, to help the humanitarian situation there, as we did in Sinjar Mountain, we will take those opportunities after having consulted with Congress.

But our core priority right now is just to make sure that our folks are safe and to do an effective assessment of Iraqi and Kurdish capabilities.

As I said, I think, in the last press conference, in order for us to be successful, you got to have an Iraqi government that is unified and inclusive. So we are continuing to push them to get that job done.

As soon as we have an Iraqi government in place, the likelihood of the Iraqi security forces being more effective in taking the fight to ISIL significantly increases.

And the options that I'm asking for from the joint chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq.

What is true, though, is that the violence that's been taking place in Syria has obviously given ISIL a safe haven there in ungoverned spaces. And in order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we're going to have to build a regional strategy. Now, we're not going to do that alone.
We're going to have to do that with other partners. And particularly, Sunni partners, because part of the goal here is to make sure that Sunnis, both in Syria and in Iraq, feel as if they've got an investment in a government that actually functions. A government that can protect them. A government that makes sure that their families are safe from the barbaric acts that we've seen in ISIl.

And right now, those structures are not in place. And that's why the issue with respect to Syria is not simply a military issue. It's also a political issue. It's also an issue that involves all the Sunni states in the region and Sunni leadership recognizing this cancer that has developed is one that they have to be just as invested in defeating as we are.

And so, you know, to cut to the chase in terms of what may be your specific concerns, Chuck, my priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIl made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself.

But when we look at a broader strategy that is consistent with what I said at West Point, that's consistent with what I said at the National Defense College, clearly ISIL has come to represent the very worst elements in the region that we have to deal with collectively. And that's going to be a long-term project. It's going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion. And stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we've got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer, you know, a real alternative and competition to what ISIL's been doing in some of these spaces.

Now, last point with respect to Assad. It's not just my opinion. I think it would be international opinion that Assad's lost legitimacy in terms of dropping barrel bombs on innocent families and killing tens of thousands of people.

And right now what we're seeing is the areas that ISIL is occupying are not controlled by Assad anyway. And frankly, Assad doesn't seem to have the capability or reach to get into those areas. So, you know, I don't think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we've been seeing there. We will continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad. And I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.

QUESTION: Do you need Congress's approval to go into Syria?

OBAMA: You know, I have consulted with Congress throughout this process. I am confident that as commander in chief I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently. As our strategy develops, we will continue to consult with Congress, and I do think that it'll be important for Congress to weigh in and we're -- that our consultations with Congress continue to develop so that the American people are part of the debate.

But I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are. And I think that's not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we've got clear plans, that we're developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard.

But there's no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.

Got it? Limited military action can be taken right now to check ISIS's advance. Future military action is contingent on political action from allies and prospective allies. Asserting that in Syria "we don't have a strategy yet" is by way of asserting that military action there is contingent on political developments.  Any inconsistency is in the eye of the beholder.

Related: "We don't have a strategy yet. Let me repeat that...

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