One has to wonder just how often members of President Barack Obama’s national security team talk with each other. The federal government is famously gigantic, but the president’s Cabinet is not, particularly if you narrow it to the inner circle that crafts military and national security strategy. One would assume that it wouldn’t be all that difficult to prepare a coherent approach to an international crisis, particularly as Cabinet members testify before Congress amidst deep skepticism of the White House’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or in the administration’s preferred acronym, ISIL).
And yet, months into the genocidal campaign of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the Obama administration still cannot offer a coherent description of the American response, let alone a coherent strategy.
Secretary of State John Kerry spent a considerable amount of time last week arguing that a bombing campaign in Iraq doesn’t amount to a war. “What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry explained. “If someone wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so.”
Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, voiced similar sentiments. “I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign,” Rice told CNN. “I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time.”
By Friday, though, the White House appeared to switch positions. Press Secretary Josh Earnest, under fire from reporters after the White House argued that military operations against ISIS were justified by previous congressional authorizations of force against al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, declared that the U.S. is at war. “The United States is at war with ISIL,” Earnest stated, “in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Admiral John Kirby, press secretary for the Pentagon, affirmed Earnest’s take, except Kirby tried to distinguish it from the 2002 authorization of military force. “What I said is, it’s not the Iraq War of 2002,” Kirby told reporters. “But make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
For most Americans, that means an actual war – certainly since the 9/11 attacks, and arguably before that, even if the U.S. did not want to acknowledge that al Qaeda had been at war with us. And the White House dance on war terminology did little to boost the confidence of Americans who have spent the last several months watching the genocidal terrorist army sweep across northern Iraq.
Still, the Obama administration contended that it didn’t amount to war-war because no American ground troops would be involved. Earnest explicitly told reporters in Monday’s press briefing that the option to put American combat forces on the ground in Iraq or Syria had been “definitively” ruled out. Earnest underscored this as a key difference between Obama’s strategy and the strategy pursued by President Bush.
The very next day, Congress heard an entirely different scenario from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Testifying in a Senate hearing, Dempsey said he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces” if the current strategy fails to destroy ISIS.
Furthermore, Dempsey said he might want to deploy American ground forces in combat to achieve specific objectives that Iraqi forces could not attain on their own. “To be clear,” Dempsey explained, “if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.”
To be very clear, those circumstances are almost unavoidable. After all, Iraq is not Somalia or Yemen.
Which brings us to yet another bit of incoherence from the White House. Despite widespread incredulity, the administration continues to assume that the ISIS threat is analogous to that posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen or al-Shabab in Somalia. Earnest on Monday cited the U.S.’s counterterrorism operations in those countries as evidence that Obama’s strategy against ISIS will work.
Not only has the U.S. failed to stop the terror threat in either country, but neither situation is comparable to ISIS. AQAP is a terrorist network that holds no significant ground in Yemen. Al-Shabab in Somalia is similarly situated. Their ranks are measured in the hundreds, perhaps low thousands, and they operate in ways that avoid the scrutiny of security forces.
ISIS has developed into an army that has displaced sovereign security forces and controls the ground on which it operates. ISIS militants have heavy armaments, thanks to the collapse of the Iraqi military in the region, and operate strategically as well as tactically. An air campaign alone will not dislodge them from the large footprint they occupy in Iraq and Syria. Only ground troops can do that, and only when deployed effectively with the proper logistical support.
Unfortunately, that is how wars against armies are won. Dempsey’s testimony anticipates that. Obama’s strategy clearly does not, and the discordant and contradictory indicators from his national-security team call into serious question whether the White House has any strategy at all.
If the White House set out to project incompetence, it could not have possibly done a better job over the last few days.