Does America Even Have a Strategy to Defeat ISIS?

Contrary to Obama's opponents, the administration does have a's just not a good one.

The knock du jour on the Obama administration is that it has no strategy against ISIS. In an inelegant turn of phrase, President Barack Obama said, “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to combat the terrorist group occupying large swaths of Iraq and Syria. His opponents, from John McCain to a number of Republican presidential hopefuls, unsurprisingly came after him for this. What most missed is that Obama does have a strategy; he laid it out on September 10, 2014 for all to hear (making the criticisms and even the president’s own comments misplaced). The real debate should center on whether the president’s plan is the right strategy and whether the administration’s approach to achieve the strategic objectives is correct.

The first question has been discussed ad nauseam, from the offshore balancers to the most ardent hawks. It’s the second question that is more interesting, and less discussed. Since we know what the administration wants—to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS—how is the administration doing by this metric? As even the most casual observer knows, it is not going well.

But first: what is a strategy versus an approach? A “strategy” is the roadmap for what gets you from where you are to where you want to go. The president’s September 2014 speech, regardless of its efficacy, was, in fact, a strategy. An “approach” is the way you go about navigating the roadmap. The United States has opted for a combination of military and governance tools, but with much more emphasis on the former.

The administration has relied mostly on airstrikes (despite 75 percent of sorties not dropping bombs) and supporting Iraq’s military and Syrian opposition groups. Based on the administration’s rhetoric, they claim all is well. In an interview, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken proudly asserted that more than 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed “since [the] campaign started.” (Blinken did say that, but the number is almost certainly wrong. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart E. Jones claims the number is closer to 6,000, and a Pentagon spokesman argues there is no official body count. Also, given that there are between 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters, 10,000 seems extraordinarily high for an unsuccessful campaign.) While an impressive number, Blinken’s statement assumes that the body count is the most important metric of success. And, perhaps, for the administration, killing as many fighters with its own bombs and having local fighters on the ground is the approach it deems best to degrade and destroy the group. Yet, as the fall of Ramadi shows, the approach is not working. The prospects are also dim for the approach working in the future either as Iraqi forces do not have the “will to fight,” the impressive Kurdish forces are outgunned, and with “Iran making it impossible for the United States to beat ISIS.” So, even if the United States’ strategic goal should be to destroy ISIS, the approach the White House is taking is severely lacking.