President Obama met with top Pentagon officials Monday but failed to map out in any detail a new military strategy for defeating Islamic State.
Real and important decisions remain on how deeply and widely to involve US troops on the ground and how the United States can do a more effective job of training Iraqi and Syrian forces to oppose Islamic State (known as IS, ISIL, and ISIS).
But Mr. Obama did do something appropriate and important for a commander in chief: He stepped back to look at the big picture, the deeper questions that must lie behind a decision such as choosing a military strategy. What he saw were two competing visions: IS terrorism and extremism and the values held dear by the US.
“This broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort,” Obama said. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they are defeated by better ideas and [a] more attractive and more compelling vision.”
The ways to win that war of ideas lies away from the battlefield.
“So the United States will continue to do our part by continuing to counter ISIL’s hateful propaganda, especially online,” the president continued. “No amount of military force will end the terror that is ISIL unless it’s matched by a broader effort – political and economic.”
Iraqi troops, despite being given US arms and training, have proved to be unreliable and often ineffective partners. Yet Kurdish militias with little US support have been able to root out IS and retake territory. Understanding what motivates one group to fight while another succumbs to fear and vanishes (some 22,000 Iraqi troops have deserted) will be just as important as pouring in more military aid, increasing US troop levels, or conducting ineffective training programs.
Even if a large US force were sent in and were to come away with a military victory over IS, what use is that if the Syrian and Iraqi people have no will to maintain that victory? They must feel it is their fight.
At this point the 2016 US presidential candidates seem eager to see who can take the hardest line on military action, with one even referring to bombing IS “back to the 7th century.”
US military involvement remains necessary, but it alone won’t win a lasting victory. As US Brig. Gen. Warren Phipps, now a senior adviser to the Afghan military, said in referring to the Taliban in 2011, “We can’t kill all the insurgents. We can’t kill our way out of this war.”
The US has more tools in its kit than the hammer of military might, which needs to be used judiciously. The US State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and other “soft power” can carry a vital message that the US is in this to help these societies recover and return to peace, not just for its own narrow purposes.
As David Alpher, an adjunct professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, put it recently:
“[I]f ‘defeat ISIS’ isn’t couched within a clear, realistic plan to do the human, political, diplomatic and development work necessary to fix the problems that gave it rise, the mission will fail.... If we want to end the problem, we need to speak to the broad population with those tools that bring life, not death.”