'Ultimately Destroy' Means 'Contain'

September 10, 2014

Twice tonight, President Obama stated that the nation’s strategy towards the Islamic State is to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" it.

Bill Gertz will have a full analysis of the president’s remarks here at the Washington Free Beacon shortly, but there is a simple point worth emphasizing by way of an immediate reaction to the speech: the modifier "ultimately" is a dodge of tremendous proportions. The timeline for the "ultimate" destruction of ISIL, according to the president’s advisers, may take two or three years—that is, potentially into the next presidential administration.

The president is thus using roughly the same form of rhetoric as the congressman who tells you his plan will balance the budget, but ten years from now.

The president appears to be dedicated to preserving the Iraqi state. That is, of course, good—and politically necessary for him, as allowing it to collapse would too clearly emphasize the failure of his policy there. Had a significant assistance force of American troops remained in Iraq, the Islamic State would not today control nearly half of the country.

But the rub lies in Syria. Obama clearly does not want to go in there. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is clearly very influential in the formation of this plan, has never wanted to go in there. The president presents as a model for his campaign American efforts in Yemen and Somalia—but our enemies in Yemen and Somalia have not been destroyed, only contained. It seems clear that Obama feels he has to say, for domestic political consumption, that he plans to destroy the Islamic State, but that he does not truly believe that he can.

The president claims that he wants to arm the non-crazy opposition to Assad, for which I am sure they will be grateful. Of course, had he done so in 2011 and 2012, the Islamic State would not today control nearly half of that country, as well.

But we are where we are. The Islamic State will be pushed back by American-advised Iraqis into Syria, and the drone games will begin, along with the occasional special operations raid. The Islamic State will be pressured there, but defeated?

Considering that al Qaeda is—despite the president’s complaisant, relentlessly triumphalist language about it, still around—that its franchises (principally the Islamic State) are stronger than ever, that the Taliban, whom the president unaccountably failed to mention, are regaining territory in Afghanistan—we may have a better chance of getting that balanced budget than defeating the self-styled Caliphate. The "strategy" is to attempt to contain it.

Moscow is watching. Tehran is watching. Beijing is watching. And what they see is the United States showing the opposite of speed and decisiveness in the face of what is, in military terms, an extremely weak enemy. Instead we say, openly, as if it were a good thing in military affairs, that we plan to take our time. They must wonder why the president would leave such a hostage to fortune, considering that, surely, the Islamic State, given time and a Syrian safe-haven where they know they will not face American ground troops, will attempt to strike the United States. America’s most dangerous foes must be very unimpressed.