Beyond Bombing Iraq: Obama Needs an ISIS Strategy

Beyond Bombing Iraq: Obama Needs an ISIS Strategy

Obama’s willingness to reengage in Iraq is admirable, but until he crafts a coherent strategy, he will be doing little more than using American pilots to kick the can down the road.


During his weekly radio address on August 9, President Barack Obama explained his decision to launch airstrikes on Iraq. First, he said, American airpower was necessary to keep the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from sweeping into Erbil, where many American diplomats, officials and businessmen reside, and second, he declared force necessary to provide humanitarian relief for displaced Yezidi stranded and besieged on a mountaintop. Obama, however, cautioned that military power could not alone resolve the situation. “There’s no American military solution to the larger crisis there,” he said, urging “Iraqi communities to reconcile, come together and fight back against these terrorists.” Fine words, but they reveal more confusion than clarity in the White House about Iraq, ISIS and the nature of terrorism.

In 2005, Robert Pape published a seminal book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, which argued against the backdrop of 9/11’s aftermath that it was grievance—specifically, occupation and the quartering of troops among resentful populations—and not religion that primarily motivated terrorism. Subsequent studies found Pape’s statistics massaged and questioned his conclusions, but Pape’s thesis remains popular among both diplomats and academics. After all, it is comforting to see terrorism as rooted in grievance because that means that diplomacy, incentive or compromise can resolve such conflicts. Unfortunately, however, ideology remains the key motivator for Islamist terrorism. Forget poverty or lack of education: most suicide bombers are educated and middle class. Nor can forcing concessions or seeking compromise work when uncompromising Islamist ideology is the problem: In an ideal world, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might have been more magnanimous toward Sunni tribal leaders, but no matter how many concessions he might have given, it would not have changed the murderous ideology and outlook of ISIS.


It is an irony of Washington that those who consider themselves most sensitive to multiculturalism and diversity ignore the fact that different peoples think in different ways. Reconciliation may be a worthy goal, but it is important to recognize that many in the Middle East do not interpret reconciliation in the same manner as do Americans. While South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission is a model American diplomats may recommend, many in the Middle East associate reconciliation with Manichean notions of justice: Instead of “truth and reconciliation,” think “truth and execution.”

While Obama’s reengagement in Iraq is a welcome acknowledgement that the price of Iraq’s failure would undercut American security interests, cognitive dissonance also infuses Obama’s recent remarks. U.S. administrations often compartmentalize problems. They develop one Iran policy, another Iraq policy and a separate Syria policy, each independent of the other. There is no grand strategy. But when Al Qaeda and offshoots like ISIS operate in countries, they conduct not traditional insurrections, but rather transnational insurgencies. American strategy, however, remains constrained by borders. If the United States is to be effective, Obama should explain why he is taking action in Iraq, but not in Syria. After all, ISIS conducts the same atrocities in both countries. Nor is it clear why Obama would act to protect the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, but not Baghdad. Maliki and Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani are mirror images of each other: Both countenance corruption and seek to rule beyond their mandate. With tanks and pro-Maliki security forces taking up positions across Baghdad yesterday, diplomats may fret at Maliki’s decision to seek a third term, but they forget that Barzani addressed a constitutional two-term limit simply by extending his second term beyond its legal limit.

Nor is Erbil more sensitive than Baghdad to broader American interests. Kurds may project a pro-Western image, but they maintain as close a relationship to the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as Maliki. Indeed, it is easier to travel to Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan than from Basra, in southern Iraq. During the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war, former President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan operated as an Iranian proxy. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Kurdistan Democratic Party repeatedly undercut efforts to arrest Qods Force operatives by tipping them off to pending American action. Every Kurdish politician—even those with the most pro-Western, pro-American reputations and long residence in Washington, DC—petitions the IRGC for its support in order to fulfill their individual political ambitions. Qods Force leader Qassem Suleimani is a frequent visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan; he does not visit Sulaymaniyah and Erbil for their kabobs.

Supporting the peshmerga may be wise considering the alternative, but Obama has yet to explain why he seeks to assist the Iraqi Kurdish militia, but not their Syrian counterpart. The Syrian peshmerga—known at the People’s Protection Units (YPG)--has achieved more against ISIS with far less, largely because Syria’s Kurdish leaders have not succumbed to the temptations of corruption.

Nepotism is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan. That the head of Kurdistan’s Special Forces is Massoud Barzani’s second son, Mansour, is no coincidence, nor did it surprise Kurds when he made general in his early 30s. Too often among the peshmerga, political patronage trumps competence. After initial losses in the past week, the peshmerga rallied admirably, but they have run short of ammunition. The question is why: Kurds have faced no impediment importing ammunition and cutting their own defense deals. The priority for Kurdistan’s leadership, however, has been elsewhere. In 2011, for example, President Barzani’s eldest son, Masrour, spent more than $10 million on a mansion in McLean, Virginia, money which might have provided ammunition for hundreds of peshmerga. As ISIS moved toward Kurdistan, some peshmerga asked why they should die to protect those who have the dollars but do not fight.

In such circumstances, Obama is wise to have American forces act directly. Perhaps he is too quick to rule out troops on the ground. These might not fight on the ground, but both the Kirkuk airfield in Iraqi Kurdistan and the al-Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq are secure and would welcome American drone operators who could force ISIS to ground.

Sometimes, there is no substitute for doing a job ourselves. Bombing a single ISIS artillery piece—or even a dozen—is not going change the outcome of war. Limited airstrikes and repeated statements are worse than whack-a-mole; they are more finger wagging at the mole. Intermittent bombing may create the illusion of threat reduction, but action absent strategy is little more than symbolism over substance. Obama’s willingness to reengage in Iraq is admirable, but until he crafts a coherent strategy that recognizes ISIS’ roots and motivation—not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon—he will be doing little more than using American pilots to kick the can down the road.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.