Why Obama's ISIS Speech Is No Strategy: 5 Concerns Going Forward

"If making a speech served as strategy, then FDR would have checked that block by declaring Pearl Harbor a day of infamy. But not so." 

If making a speech served as strategy, then FDR would have checked that block by declaring Pearl Harbor a day of infamy. But not so.

Long before the Japanese bombers and Zeros hit Pearl, Roosevelt’s team had put in months of hard thinking, planning and decision-making to prepare for the nightmare scenario of a two-front conflict with Germany and Japan. And after the outbreak of World War II, the lights in the Oval Office continued to burn long into the nights to hone the life-line of a guiding idea into a war-winning instrument.

Today, we still know little of President Obama's strategy to "destroy” ISIS. He articulated a guiding idea: if you threaten America, there will be no sanctuary. And we heard him pledge to conduct a systematic and sustained counter-terrorism campaign, hunting down terrorists wherever they are (including Syria, if necessary). But these are aspirations, not strategy.

With talk of a nine-member coalition, the White House has surely whipped something together. But we are left wondering if it will be good enough, and if Obama will see it through.

In the best case scenario, last night's speech should mark the start of a bipartisan consensus that the nation hasn't seen since the day after 9/11. That would be welcome development. For far too long the maxim “politics ought to end at the water's edge” has been a tagline for jokes by the Capitol Steps.

Almost everyone shares the president’s recognition that it’s most certainly in our national interest to help the Iraqi people drive ISIS out of Iraq and to limit the potential of ISIS to strike at the U.S. and its friends and allies. Polls suggest the American people support the mission. Congressional leaders in both parties seem anxious for the president to act. The Western allies are in. The Arab States want action. Obama can move forward with as much confidence as any American war leader that his people and our allies have his back.

Message to Mr. Obama: Don't squander a good thing.

Five concerns arise from what was—and wasn’t—said last night. The White House will have to address all five to reassure Americans and our friend abroad that the Oval Office is following a suitable, feasible and acceptable course to victory.

Concern #1:This is not about Syria.

The future of Iraq impacts on the vital national interests of the U.S. The future of Syria does not.  If ISIS is defeated and driven back into Syria, the president can go back to calling them the JV team. ISIS became a problem because it took over a third of Iraq. Solve that and… problem solved.

A weakened ISIS driven from Iraq will spend most of its time worrying about how it will survive being attacked by all sides in Syria. Further, there is no near-term military solution to Syria. As long as Iran and Russia are willing to prop up Assad, the Bathists will fight on.

It is conceivable that the U.S. might find some cause to undertake or support some limited military activities in Syria to help complete the mission of driving ISIS out and keeping it on the other side of the Iraqi border. Proportional, reasonable military tasks like that make sense, but that's different from maximalist mission of turning Syria into the land of milk and honey.

U.S. activities might involve aiding some rebel groups within Syria. That should be nothing new. It always made sense to provide some support to rebel groups to help defend innocents, prevent genocide and fight for freedom—as long as the U.S. took reasonable precautions that the aid was used responsibly, served a purpose, and didn't fall into the hands of Islamists. Nothing much has changed, rebels might serve some ancillary role in driving ISIS out of Iraq, but they can’t serve as a centerpiece of the U.S. strategy. That's unrealistic and unnecessary.

The Syrian civil war is related, but a sideshow to what has to be the main effort. Even if we wanted to undertake robust operations in Syria, it is doubtful that we have the intelligence and support networks necessary to conduct them effectively. The whole discussion on Syria is a bit of a strategic distraction.

Concern #2: Don't empower the Iranian regime and Assad.  

They are equal with ISIS on the evil meter. ISIS can and should be squashed without doing Tehran and Damascus any favors.  After all, Obama has already "helped" both bad regimes--and ISIS broke out anyway.  The chemical weapons “deal" with Assad allowed Moscow to prop up the Syrian strongman even more and relieved some of the international pressure on his regime. Meanwhile, the nuclear negotiations have given Iran’s mullahs much needed financial relief. Such “smart diplomacy” has only strengthened both countries and complicated the strategic chaos in the region.

Conversely, crushing ISIS won't be of much good to either of them. They both have plenty of enemies in the region left to make their life miserable. In fact, Obama should work to belittle ISIS and add to their misery at the same time.

Concern #3: Don't obsess about mission creep.

The president spends more time explaining what he won’t do than what he will. Mission creep becomes a problem only when war leaders have no idea what the mission is or no real appreciation for the force required to get the job done.  There is no need for massive U.S. combat ground efforts like there was during the invasion or the surge. The Iraqis, if adequately supported, can win back their country.

Moreover, it is uber irresponsible to spell out what you are not going to do.  That just makes your enemies’ job of planning easier because they know what to expect.