Marc Ambinder

Obama knows he can't really 'defeat' ISIS. Americans need to wake up to that reality, too.

Under what authority is President Obama going to war against ISIS, the omnivorous octopus that has ruthlessly gobbled up territory in the Middle East? His advisers cite the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against al Qaeda. That's somewhat confusing, because al Qaeda has become an ISIS antagonist.

Indeed, there is quite a bit about the fight against ISIS that remains opaque. What is it "we" are doing, exactly? Does it compare to what we've already done in Iraq and in Afghanistan? If the threat is not imminent, why would we want to do anything?

Here's my attempt to sort out what's really going on.

Obama hasn't figured out a way to tell the American people what he's doing. So the media, the president's critics, and even his supporters simply ignore what he says in favor of our own reading of the world.

With his administration using the word "war" and promising to "destroy" ISIS, Obama has gotten himself into more of a pickle. I don't actually think, in his heart of hearts, Obama believes that the U.S. is going to "war" with anyone.

Counterterrorism campaigns do not neatly fit into our black-and-white descriptions of the way conventional wars begin and end. There will never be "victory" in the sense that terrorists will stop trying to attack the United States. What there will be, instead, is managed risk. A constant effort to detect and degrade the threat. A balance of measures — political, military, legal, and otherwise — focusing on the capacity of terrorists to create havoc outside their geographical boundaries. Preventing them from obtaining or developing weapons of mass destruction.


Here is Andrew Sullivan. He notes that allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) are "nowhere" and that the U.S. has "Americanized" a Middle East quagmire once again. This, he concludes:

" almost a textbook example of the dumb war Obama was elected to avoid. It vitiates everything he has said through his candidacy and presidency. Its potential consequences are utterly opaque and we have no exit plan in the wake of our defeat. And yes — there is no war in the Middle East that leads to victory. It is always some kind of version of defeat." [The Dish]

But Sullivan knows better. Obama does not think the United States has to fight a "war on terrorism." There is no such thing. War, real war, is different. Qualitatively. Fundamentally. War implies an end. Combating violent extremism, which was the administration's phrase of choice, speaks to the enduring nature of the conflict.

The number of U.S. combat troops in Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq — three places where Islamic extremists are on the march — is tiny, a fraction of the number that President Bush mobilized for Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost, too, is not war-like. If Obama keeps even 2,000 special operations forces and their enablers in Iraq until the end of his presidency, the cost is negligible. What about "Americanizing a Middle East" conflict? No. 1, we are there already. No. 2, wherever we go, we will "Americanize" a conflict because we are the world's only superpower. So does it therefore follow that we wait until the threat to the homeland is absolutely imminent to fight anywhere because local politics are complicated and some people might not like us? Again, the degree of anti-American sentiment whipped up by an invasion of Iraq is orders of magnitude greater than anything that will come from a small contingent of American force multipliers in Iraq.

Obama's doctrine for managing threats is driven by covert action and intelligence; on his watch, the number of soldiers deployed to fight has shrunk relative to the intelligence resources deployed to detect and diminish the threat. Because we are appalled at the inhumanity of ISIS, we might all want to turn into Geraldo Riveras and blast those idiots back to the Stone Age, but the reality is that Obama knows he cannot do that; he cannot "defeat" ISIS. But he can manage the threat in a way that accepts the reality of a very complex world that is always throwing surprises in his way.

We are not fighting ISIS because ISIS is plotting an imminent attack on the U.S. We are fighting ISIS because (a) the U.S. does not want Iran to fight and defeat ISIS alone; (b) the Saudis recognize that ISIS poses an existential threat to them if not checked soon; (c) Obama believes the U.S. has a residual responsibility to try to help stabilize Iraq if Iraq asks for the help, which it now is; (d) ISIS, well-funded and well-armed, has threatened the United States directly, and there is no reason to think that they won't try to find some way to directly attack American interests down the road: (e) an ISIS unchecked could throw the entire region into complete chaos; (f) Syria seems to welcome the help, and in any case, the administration has signaled that airstrikes in Syria will be a very modest part of this campaign; and (g) the relative risk to American assets, people, and authority is low.

Here's the best advice Obama is getting from critics: Focus on political change in the region with as much, if not more, fervor than you're prosecuting a counterterrorism campaign. Statecraft, not warcraft.

It sounds pithy. It sounds high-minded. It sounds...obvious. And very, very smart people, casting about for a way to find flaws in Obama's approach to ISIS, are making this very argument. Don't go to war. Change the way Sunnis view the Iraqi government. (How? Don't know. that, Obama.)

Always, always, always, in every war, every fight, everywhere in time, the expenditure of force is never sufficient. Success is fundamentally the result of political change secured in part by the use of force. It is therefore not terribly interesting to say, "We cannot fight our way to peace in Iraq and Syria." Obviously so. That's why Obama has been reluctant to do anything there in the first place.

Politics — political change — is one reason why Obama waited until Iraq chose a president who promised to be more accommodating to Sunnis before he committed to a major counterterrorism campaign. Obama did put politics first; he helped push Nouri al-Maliki from power. By no means was this a sufficient step, but it was a necessary one.

I suspect that a larger military campaign against ISIS is similarly imperative, but it will not be decisive.

I also suspect that the White House does not know how to explain to the country that in order to understand what he is doing, the American people must change the way they understand basic concepts of war and peace.


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