President Obama’s strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroying” the so-called Islamic State (IS) was unveiled last week to a world audience horrified by the sheer savagery of the group. From his podium Obama declared that IS poses a threat to global peace and stability and as such had to be confronted with a concerted military effort. His elaborate four-part strategy was widely welcomed, save by Russia and China, Syria’s allies, who expressed reservations in defense of Syria’s territorial integrity, as of course did al-Assad, who insisted that Syria must be a partner in any action against IS waged within its borders.
Obama’s strategy may, at least in the short-term, degrade IS and reduce it to a rag-tag band of rebels operating without effective control over any territory in Iraq. The same however cannot be said of Syria, which constitutes the group’s safe haven, to which the jihadists will retreat, once routed in Iraq. What is debatable about Obama’s IS strategy is its ability to achieve its “ultimate” objective of destroying the group. If the decade-long war on al-Qaida is anything to go by, IS won’t be “ultimately” destroyed through military effort alone. In fact if the “War On Terror” offers us any guidance, as a result of this intervention IS may well mutate into something more virulent and resilient, in pretty much the same way that it metamorphosed from al-Qaida to “Islamic State”.
President Obama’s IS strategy places insufficient emphasis on addressing the Islamist ideology which we consider to be the root cause that has given rise to the very problematic “Islamic State”.
Deploying military might will certainly disrupt IS’s murderous campaign. However, a comprehensive strategy countering the Islamist ideology fueling IS and other jihadist groups might be more effective in dealing with the underlying, persistent problem of jihadism.
Obama’s strategy pays at best lip service to this, and that constitutes its greatest shortcoming. Confronting Islamist ideology is a battle for hearts and minds: something which the State Department might conceivably be better equipped than the Pentagon to undertake.
On May 28, 2014 in his commencement speech to West Point graduates President Obama counseled the cadets that, “U.S. military action cannot be the only or even the primary component of our leadership in every instance.” He went on to say: “Just because we have the best hammer, this does not mean that every problem is a nail.” In his strategy to defeat IS, Obama seems to have either forgotten his own admonishment, or perhaps he simply succumbed to pressure to make military action the primary component of his response to the IS threat, possibly against his better judgment.
Obama might still re-order his priorities, if the air strikes are unsuccessful in putting a halt to the bloodshed, or if IS goes underground.