Obama IS strategy primes the US for a long and risky fight

Adrift? EPA/Joshua Roberts

US president Barack Obama has at last outlined his strategy for responding to the challenge of Islamic State (IS). In an address from the Oval Office, just a few hours short of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the president framed his strategy in terms of a general global counter-terrorism strategy – veering close, at times, to the sweeping generalisations of the infamous Global War on Terrorism.

Hours later, it was announced that ten Arab states, among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, would join in the effort to stopping IS with various measures – including by, “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign”.

As Obama put it, the United States will work with this “coalition of the willing” to “degrade and destroy” IS. But aside from referencing ongoing air strikes and the insertion of 455 more American troops on the ground to provide training and intelligence, his outline for what will actually happen next was somewhat short on detail, and long on atmospherics.

Given his political situation, that much is perhaps not surprising.

Back on track?

Obama has long been under attack from the political left and right for his administration’s apparent strategic drift – criticism which he himself has played into of late.

That drift is all the more worrisome given the range of “crises” facing the nation and the world — from a revanchist Russia to a rapidly modernising China, from transnational problems from climate change to an Ebola outbreak, from insurgencies in Africa to what was long known as the “AfPak” region.

Hence the tempest in a teapot when obvious 2016 presidential contender and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton carped at Obama’s graceless but cogent maxim “don’t do stupid shit”, which she derided as “not an organising principle” for a foreign policy vision.

On the other side of the aisle, we’ve seen the painful spectacle of potential Republican presidential nominee Rand Paul abandoning his libertarian intellectual birthright to criticise the President for not being Hawkish enough – a brazen attempt to curry favour with the Republican base and brand himself as a serious national leader.

It’s all too easy to end up neck-deep in the party-political swamp here, but to properly evaluate the US’s new approach, we have to resist that temptation.

Instead, we need to think about how well the President’s approach fits into the broader requirements of some US grand strategy, if one can really be said to exist any more.

Ramping up

Obama has made it clear that aside from a few trainers and intelligence specialists, the US’s military contribution to the anti-IS coalition will be limited to air strikes. But there are very few if any historical examples of airpower making a decisive impact against irregular forces, rather than traditional ground targets.

In asymmetric conflicts like that against IS, airpower generally only works in conjunction with a credible and capable ground force. The problem is that there are many, many questions hovering over the effectiveness of Iraq’s US-trained forces, which have so far proven largely ineffective against IS’s machinations.

Meanwhile, even the less-radical elements of Syria’s anti-Assad forces.

That said, airpower remains the US’s most towering military advantage; it’s also a much less resource-intensive contribution than heavy ground deployment, vital at a time when so many other strategic challenges are facing the US and its allies.

In times as chaotic and unpredictable as these, prioritising the IS threat over other challenges is ultimately a question of judgement. If Obama has reached the conclusion that IS represents a mortal danger to US citizens, then immediate action including the use of military force is by definition required.

Equally, if he believes IS has the potential to become still more capable, and could become an even more significant challenge in the Middle East and elsewhere, prudent action today might nip a major catastrophe in the bud.

But this is where Obama has rather fudged the argument.

Neither Islamic nor a state

Consistent with the publicly available intelligence, he admitted that IS does not yet pose an immediate threat to the US – and by denying IS’s self-proclaimed ambition to be recognised as an Islamic state per se, he has rather weakened the argument that the US and its coalition partners urgently need to “degrade and destroy” it before it in fact becomes one.

Essentially, the president has tried to push the case that his strategy reconciles the demands of crisis management and political expediency with long-term national security objectives. His argument is that IS should be treated like any other terrorist group – a threat he has until now consistently confronted via a steady stream of targeted drone strikes, virtually anywhere across the globe he deemed them necessary.

If he believes that fighting terrorists in distant foreign territory is a national security priority, relentless strikes that destroy their safe havens can help reconcile short-term threats versus long-term goals. It also justifies his willingness to assume the serious risks such strike operations inevitably entail.

By appealing to the apparently still-deep reservoir of post-9/11 support for counter-terrorism measures in general, the president has made the case for indefinite extension of the counter-terrorism approach to deal with the latest terrorist group – but likely the next one as well.

Obama’s strategy will not put an end to the “silly season” shenanigans of the American electoral cycle, with the midterm elections in November and the 2016 presidential campaign posturing already well underway.

But by framing the IS problem as one of fighting terrorists, perhaps he can win enough vocal support from the American people to in turn persuade Congress to back his campaign of “degrading and destroying” – a campaign which he clearly understands will be long and risky.

How this will fit the US’s pressing strategic interests for the coming decades – the Asia rebalancing, serious troubles in Eurasia, and who knows what else – remains an open question.