Containment By Any Other Name

... is just as dangerous

• September 8, 2014 12:16 pm


The liberal world order breathed a collective sigh of relief when President Obama told Chuck Todd over the weekend that "on Wednesday I’ll make a speech" outlining his response to the Islamic State.

It is of course possible that this address will serve to inform the American public about the serious nature of the threat posed by IS, and to inspire us to grant our support to a clearly defined and plausibly designed campaign to defeat what policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum seem comfortable calling a "cancer."

But wait right there, cowboy. Who said anything about "defeat"? True to form, the president and his senior advisers cannot simply articulate the goal of defeating an enemy without some sort of modifier or loophole. No doubt stung by the criticism they received when the president, speaking last week in Estonia, appeared to suggest that he would be comfortable  merely containing the threat of the Islamic State, they have settled on something tougher—or at least tougher sounding: "Degrade and ultimately defeat."

As the president put it to Todd:

We are going to be as part of an international coalition carrying out airstrikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over. What I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL, we are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory they control, and ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.

How large a loophole is this "ultimately?" Measured in time, it appears to stretch out to at least three years—which is to say, into the next presidential administration:

"We have the ability to destroy ISIL," Secretary of State John Kerry said last week at the NATO summit meeting in Wales, using an alternative name for the militant group. "It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen."

Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, has suggested that the United States is undertaking a prolonged mission. "It’s going to take time, and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat," Mr. Blinken said last week on CNN.

This is extraordinary. The Islamic State poses a serious threat to American security—and to the world’s. But, it almost goes without saying, they are not a major power. They are eminently defeatable. But here we have an administration saying that, after they have provided air support so that Iraqis can push IS back into Syria, it plans to move so slowly as to leave the later stages of what it rather grandly calls the "third phase" of its campaign to the next president. I'm sure Hillary is thrilled.

Speaking generously, the administration appears to believe that it might just take that long to build a credible non-crazy opposition to Assad in Syria.

Two thoughts on this: There might be a credible non-crazy opposition today, had we taken the Syrian civil war seriously back in 2011 and 2012. Also: from the United States’ declaration of war on the major Axis powers in December of 1941, to their surrender in the spring and summer of 1945, took three-and-a-half years.

That was to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

A less generous interpretation of the administration’s rhetoric seems sadly more plausible: the goal is to secure the Iraqi state and ensure that the Islamic State is more or less "contained" within Syria.

This is inestimably dangerous. The murderous terrorists who lead IS will undoubtedly not be content to sit around and be contained. It is a certainty that they will look to leverage their significant asymmetric advantages—like their large group of Western recruits, complete with Western passports—to strike back.

Containment is still just as dangerous, even if you pretend that it’s not what you are doing in order to look credible before the midterms.

Published under: Barack Obama, Iraq, Islamic State, Syria