It was the gaffe so good, he made it twice. Apparently, the president does not see his shamelessly lackadaisical approach to conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a failure of which his administration should be ashamed. After conceding that he didn’t have a comprehensive ISIS strategy, much less one that would result in unambiguous victory, last August, President Barack Obama reiterated that admission on Monday.
The president’s admission in August, exactly 20 days after the start of renewed airstrikes in Iraq targeting ISIS, that “we don’t have a strategy yet” was met with shocked gasps and myriad disapproving opinion pieces. Many saw the fact that the commander-in-chief did not have a clear and executable strategy for victory even after sending American forces into combat as the height of irresponsibility. Today, exactly 10 months after the beginning of new coalition combat operations over Iraq, the president said that he still has no clear vision for victory in the war against ISIS.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said at a press conference at the G-7 gathering in Germany, “because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”
It was deplorable that an American commander of the armed forces did not have a plan for victory after the fall of a major Iraqi city to a terrorist organization, but it is simply reprehensible for the president to continue to cling to a failing war plan even amid cascading losses. Obama may, however, benefit from Americans’ reduced expectations of him. 20 days into the new campaign against ISIS, it was revelatory to learn that Obama had no strategy. Today, after so many setbacks, that might not come as much of a shock.
The president did his best to shift blame for his failure of leadership onto Pentagon commanders. Obama claimed that Defense Department officials had not yet presented to him a “finalized” plan for victory in Iraq that consists of relying on Iraqi Security Forces to serve as the primary ground combat forces. But what if the plan that the president wants is simply unfeasible? The U.S. was reportedly caught “off guard” by the spectacular implosion of the ISF in the summer of last year, as waves of ISIS forces poured over the Syrian border and sacked city after city including Mosul, the second largest urban center in Iraq. By November of 2014, U.S. troops began speeding the training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for an assault on that city that never came. Now Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province and a city located just 70 miles from the seat of Iraqi governance, has also fallen to ISIS. The return on American investment in the ISF seems a long way off.
And while it is simply inexcusable that the President of the United States has so far refused to craft an achievable strategic plan for victory in Iraq and Syria nearly one year after committing American personnel and material to the fight, it’s perhaps more galling that his apparent intention is to bequeath his war to the next president. It would be a unique political failure if Obama, a president elected with a mandate to withdraw from Iraq, were compelled to again commit U.S. ground forces to combat operations in Iraq as a direct result of the premature pursuit of that agenda item. Obama appears content to do his best to contain ISIS insofar as it is possible and let the next president make the inevitable case that Western forces must again return to Iraq before the nascent caliphate can export terrorism abroad.
In this way, Obama does have a strategy that he has applied to fighting ISIS in Iraq. It is not, however, a strategy designed to achieve a victory.