Commentary Magazine


U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition

Last week a congressman asked me: Should I support President Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy even though it is likely to fail? Good question. And it’s not only lawmakers who are asking themselves that question. So are actual or potential U.S. allies from Europe to the Middle East. The most important people to be asking themselves that question are Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria whose support is vital to defeat ISIS. But should they risk their lives in what could well be a losing cause?

That, unfortunately, is the issue that will confront retired General John Allen, who has been tasked with assembling an anti-ISIS coalition. American credibility reached a low point a year ago when Obama threatened air strikes against Syria but then lost his nerve. Obama’s credibility has never recovered either with American voters or American allies. As one analyst in the UAE (one of the countries Obama is relying upon for help), recently told the Washington Post, “We have reached a low point of trust in this administration. We think in a time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin.”

The president does nothing to enhance his own credibility when he overrules the best advice of his own military commanders by refusing to commit U.S. “boots on the ground” to help anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria became a more credible military force. Most serious military analysts believe a substantial force of American advisers and Special Operations Forces will be required. Kim and Fred Kagan, for example, argue for 25,000 personnel in Iraq and Syria. I have suggested a figure of 10,000 to 15,000. By limiting the entire U.S. presence to 1,600 personnel so far, and by refusing to let U.S. advisers operate with units in the field, Obama has made it much less likely that the U.S. could achieve the objectives he set out.

And those objectives are themselves problematic. Obama said he is out to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. If his objective is really to destroy the group, why include the word “degrade”? Did FDR commit the U.S. after Pearl Harbor to “degrade and ultimately destroy” German and Japanese power? No, he committed the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to achieve he unconditional surrender of the enemy–the “degrade” part was assumed as being necessary on the road to ultimate victory. Because, however, Obama makes clear that his immediate objective is only to “degrade” ISIS–and because Pentagon officials have been leaking that the administration envisions a multiyear effort that will be handed off to the next administration–he raises the suspicion that he is intent only on “degrading” not on “destroying” ISIS.

Secretary of State John Kerry does not help matters, either, when he denies that the U.S. is at war with ISIS–he says it’s simply a “major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” That kind of language hardly inspires men to risk their lives.Kerry had to backpeddle on Sunday, saying that, yes the U.S. is “at war” with ISIS but the damage had been done–it shouldn’t be a matter of debate whether the U.S. is or is not at war.

This exquisitely nuanced and cerebral president needs to understand that war is, above all, a matter of willpower–that, especially when you are engaged in a conflict against an adversary utilizing guerrilla or terrorist tactics, the winner is usually the side with the greatest will to win. Alas, the president is doing little to convince anyone that he has committed every fiber of his being to crush ISIS. And until allies are convinced of our seriousness they are not likely to hazard much to help us.

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3 Responses to “U.S. Credibility and the Anti-ISIS Coalition”


    Back in 2010, General McChrystal made the important point in his Charlie Rose interview on Bloomberg TV of the importance of long term commitment.
    He quoted Afghan tribal leaders asking: Where did you go when you kicked out the Russians? Are you going to stay? You didn’t stay last time?
    He says that people (not just the Taliban) make their decisions based on their belief about the future.
    If what McChrystal says is correct, Obama lost Afghanistan when he announced the date for withdrawal of US Forces, because its not just the Taliban who will sit us out but so will the Afghan people whose support is vital in a Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism War.
    Ditto for ISIS.
    Obama has this unhappy knack of negating any good news with bad news. I think he believes that is “balance”!
    This is what he did in Afghanistan when at the same time as announcing a mini troop surge he announced a withdrawal!
    Now he announces the US will intervene against ISIS (the good news) but he wont intervene much(the bad news)!

    Sometimes the ‘good news’ turns out to be a lie (“You can keep your existing healthcare plans”)! Maybe he will escalate, as these things tend to do, but if I were an Iraqi Sunni I wouldn’t bet on it!


    The failure to articulate a coherent and credible strategy, conflicting statements from the administration, and the tentative commitment of the US and even less from members of the “coalition” send a message of both indecision and a lack of resolve. This is not “pursuing ISIS to the gates of Hell”.
    War weary or not, America has to make decisions based upon its interests, not based upon political expediency. Besides, this so-called war weariness comes from those who neither serve, nor sacrifice. Our nation seems to want short term, easy victories, costing little money and no lives. And, many of those who casually advocate the use of force, “kick ass”, and shout Hooyah! lack any concern whatsoever for those who do serve, nor does Congress and the Administration care for our veterans after they return.
    This nation is not recognizable as a country that was initially forged by genuine sacrifice. Frankly, we owe more to those who do. And, when we decide to send them to the gates of Hell, we need to equip them adequately and justify such decisions to our people. That’s leadership.
    Remember what Trotsky once said, “You may not want War. But War wants you”. And, following that thought is Napoleon’s comment: “If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.” It’s time for mature and realistic decisions.

  3. RICHMOND says:

    Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign threats was to ‘talk softly and carry a big stick’. The implication being that if words don’t achieve the objective, force will.

    This ‘exquisitely nuanced and cerebral president’ has the stick, but either doesn’t know how to or doesn’t want to use it, perhaps both. Yet, the only language likely to be understood by ISIS, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda and the al-Nusra front is force.

    In the words wrongly attributed to Julius Caesar, ‘if you want peace be prepared for war’.

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