Thursday, September 11, 2014

Degrade and Destroy

Last night President Obama outlined a four part strategy for action against ISIL. Of note, he started by indicating that he believes ISIL is neither Islamic, nor a state, but instead, it is a terrorist organization and that all those who threaten America will not be able to find a safe haven. With this in mind, he laid out his strategy:

First, the U.S. will “conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” So while the U.S. has already been conducting airstrikes in Iraq, Obama has now inserted America into Syria as well, despite years of avoiding involvement in Syria. This reversal of policy is not entirely shocking or unexpected, although it is interesting to note that just last year Obama declared that he wanted to work with Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), but he is now easing away from his promise to move off of a “perpetual wartime footing.”

Second, America will increase its “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” What is of importance here is that Obama is repeatedly making it clear that American troops will not be involved in combat on foreign soil. After more than a decade of war, Obama has ended one war in Iraq and brought almost 150,000 troops home – he seems to understand that the American people are tired of war and do not want to become too entangled in the current unrest in the Middle East. Therefore, it is important for Obama’s strategy that Middle Eastern nations fight for themselves and fight against ISIL and the threat that extremists pose.

Despite Obama’s pledge to avoid combat, an additional 475 service members are being sent to Iraq, bringing the known total to around 1,700. However, the declared purpose of the U.S. personnel in Iraq is to support the local Iraqi and Kurdish forces through training, supplying equipment, and gathering intelligence. Additionally, before the President’s speech on Wednesday, the U.S. gave the Iraqi and Kurdish forces $25 million in military aid to help them fight against extremists.

For the third part of his strategy, Obama announced that America will draw on its “counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.” This point was not fully fleshed out, although Obama indicated again that America would work with partners on this issue. Although not explicitly mentioned in his speech, curbing the financial flow of funds to ISIL is a critical part of stagnating the strength and abilities of ISIL.

Fourth, and finally, the U.S. “will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced” or otherwise affected by ISIL. Details regarding any particulars were not listed, but given that the first three parts of the strategy focused on the military aspect of the conflict, highlighting the humanitarian needs and what the U.S. is doing to fulfill them is likely aimed to help bolster the public perception and image of America abroad.

Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in the Middle East and he is seeking to build broader support for the U.S. strategy among the Gulf States and other nations in the region. Of particular importance, Saudi Arabia has already agreed to host a training base for moderate Syrian rebels. Strong international action is needed for Obama’s strategy to be effective. Attempting unilateral action or having a weak and varied international response will not be enough to stem ISIL’s agenda.

No timetable or specifics were given, but Obama appears to be taking a stronger stance on ISIL. Recently he was heavily criticized for appearing to not have a coherent or solid strategy and this speech certainly worked to remedy that. Despite some calls for a vote in Congress, Obama has stated that he has authority to carry out his new strategy and therefore does not need congressional approval,  but he believes it would be beneficial for Congress to stand by him and show that they are united in support. For more on the legal and constitutional implications of Obama’s recent authorization of force against ISIL, read this article.

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding if Obama's strategy will work, only time will tell if it is a success.

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