Lots of Questions: Dissecting Obama's Islamic State Strategy

"In defining U.S. goals, Obama twice employed the telling phrase 'degrade and ultimately destroy.' Lawyers like the president don’t use language like that for no reason—especially twice."

Although President Barack Obama now insists that he does have a strategy to deal with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), his call to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ambitious and brutal terrorist group raises several important questions.

1.  When is “ultimately”?

In defining American goals, Obama twice employed the telling phrase “degrade and ultimately destroy.” Lawyers like the president don’t use language like that for no reason—especially twice. What does Obama mean? He is clearly trying to contain expectations. But is he limiting expectations because he knows it will be a long fight without ground troops and wants Americans to be prepared? Or because he intends to do the bare minimum necessary to avoid political vulnerability at home? Too many of the president’s past foreign policy speeches (remember Cairo?) have produced little or no follow up. What will Obama actually do?

2.  What does Obama think Americans want?

This is a crucial question for a president whose foreign policy is politically risk-averse, with the partial exceptions of the U.S.-Russia reset and ongoing negotiations with Iran. Obama’s speech came just days after new polling found that 71 percent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq. His declaration that he “will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria” follows 65 percent support for airstrikes against the group there. At the same time, few support deeper involvement.

3.  Will a limited war with ISIL stay limited?

Whatever the president’s intentions in defining his new strategy and policy to combat ISIL, he has taken a very significant step in making clear that America intends to “destroy” the group. It is not easy to back away from a goal like that and, as a result, Obama may well face considerable pressure to do more in the weeks and months ahead if his approach does not succeed. Neo-conservatives and liberal hawks—not-so-affectionately termed “the war party” by many conservatives and libertarians—will be calling for more every day. Some partisan Republicans will do the same, less from conviction than convenience. Will Obama stand firm? Or will he increase America’s commitment? A semantically clever White House can do a great deal before reaching the roadblock the president established in saying that “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

4.  What’s up with Syria?

Obama’s references to Syria are particularly interesting. The president’s newly-proclaimed willingness to attack ISIL in Syria simultaneously defers to public opinion and accepts the reality that contradictory U.S. policies on the two sides of the Iraq-Syria border (fighting ISIL in Iraq while trying to undermine President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, and facilitating ISIL’s rise) have helped ISIL more than anyone else. This suggests that both Obama and the American public are now much more worried about ISIL than about Assad.

Obama’s vow to “strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL” is a rhetorical fig leaf; the clock hands for U.S. attacks on ISIL in Syria, and Assad’s efforts to capitalize on them, will be spinning much faster than the ones measuring American support to Syria’s moderates or their actual military capabilities and public support in Syria. Just look at what the U.S. has managed to do for Syria’s opposition so far, not to mention the delays in F-16 sales to Iraq that limited Baghdad’s ability to prevent ISIL from taking the territory it now controls.

The great irony in this situation is that the loudest advocates of U.S. strikes to oust Assad over the last three years have now become the biggest supporters of expansive military action against ISIL that cannot but strengthen Assad’s hand. Neither Obama nor the American people seem to mind too much—the president even stressed that his strategy of supporting the opposition would be in parallel with “pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.” At the same time, pragmatic Republicans like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers note that ISIL, not Syria, is the real threat to America. Meanwhile, neo-conservative commentators such as The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin try to distract attention from these glaring facts by getting excited about Senator Rand Paul’s recent call to “destroy” ISIL, as if elected officials should not change their views as ISIL’s evolution warrants.

This leads, in turn, to a final question:

5.  Will the Congress actually start to play a meaningful role in decisions of war and peace?