US President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address on the Islamic State from the White House on September 10, 2014.
Center Security Experts Respond to President Obama's ISIS Strategy
September 11, 2014
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Harvard–Belfer on Syria
Following President Obama’s September 10 speech to the nation proposing a strategic response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), several Belfer Center international security experts provided their reactions. Graham Allison, Gary Samore, and Stephen Walt offer comments below.
Last night’s speech was the poster child of Obama’s basic counterterrorism strategy. It started with an assessment of the threat to American national interests. It recognized that the U.S. must mobilize and lead broad coalitions of disparate, disagreeable, and even disgusting associates—many of whom hate each other, or even us, as much as they fear ISIL. (This recalls Churchill’s response to criticism of the British and American alliance with Stalin in the war against the Nazis: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”) It rejected the view that if anyone is going to bleed, Americans should bleed first; that if anyone is going to pay, Americans should pay first. It reminded locals that ISIL threatens them more than it does us; that Americans are not going to do for them what they must do for themselves. It focused American resources on distinctive contributions the U.S. can make: air strikes, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), training, and selective equipping. And it anticipated adaptation to a highly uncertain, rapidly changing environment.
President Obama made a compelling case that ISIL represents a serious threat to American security, foreign partners, and values, and outlined a four-part strategy for “degrading and defeating” the terrorist organization. ISIL is a good enemy to have. Its brutal extremism helps the President rally domestic American support, overcome partisan differences with Congress, and assemble a broad international coalition. However, the President’s strategy faces several big challenges. Whether the new government in Iraq can accommodate Sunni and Kurdish political interests and form a common front against ISIL remains to be seen. In Syria, the situation is even more challenging. We cannot work with the Assad government and we lack local military forces that can capitalize on American air strikes to recapture territory controlled by ISIL. Setting up an effective, moderate Syrian opposition will be difficult and time consuming. Third, as the President said, the international coalition must include a prominent role for Arab countries to mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria and delegitimize ISIL’s religious appeal. This will be Secretary Kerry’s mission in coming months. Finally, even if ISIL is defeated, American military force and diplomacy cannot address the more fundamental sources of extremism that are likely to pose a threat for many years to come.
Obama’s decision to escalate U.S. military action against ISIL is an ill-advised gamble, and it suggests the U.S. has learned little from past failures in Iraq and Libya. ISIL is a brutal extremist movement but not a threat to vital U.S. interests. Airpower alone cannot destroy it; the only long-term solution is the establishment of effective governance in the regions where it operates. Washington cannot perform that role, and success will depend on local actors who have proven to be unreliable in the past. The bottom line: the U.S. has just taken on another open-ended military commitment, but without a clear strategy, reliable allies or a convincing rationale.
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