Obama says no 'complete strategy' against ISIS: what he's getting at

Some regional analysts heard President Obama’s comment as a warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that greater international assistance in the fight against Islamic State depends on steps to build a more inclusive government.      

Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his news conference at the conclusion of the G7 Summit in the Bavarian town of Kruen, Germany June 8, 2015.

President Obama on Monday repeated his sentiment that, in the past, has drawn heavy criticism: that the United States has not yet developed a full strategy for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

But this time, he offered some hints to explain his pronouncement – suggesting that the US is holding back on its commitments to Iraq as a means of pressuring the government to take the political steps that the White House considers necessary for any anti-IS strategy to be successful.

A “complete strategy ... requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in Germany at a press conference wrapping up a two-day summit of the Group of Seven industrialized Western countries. The Iraqi government, he added, has to establish “how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place.”  

At the same time, Obama said Iraq must take steps to build an “inclusive” government that serves Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd communities equally. “If Sunnis, Kurds, and Shia all feel as if their concerns are being addressed, and that operating within a legitimate political structure can meet their need for security, prosperity, nondiscrimination, then we’re going to have a much easier time.”

Earlier in the day, the president met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was invited to the Western-powers confab to review the anti-IS battle and to present his case for more international assistance.

Obama alluded to the reluctance of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to enlist and arm Sunnis in the country’s security forces as an impediment to a successful campaign against IS.

Noting that, at the moment, there is actually more training capacity in Iraq than recruits coming forward to be trained, he said, “A big part of the answer there is our outreach to Sunni tribes.... It has not been happening as fast as it needs to.”

The US has encouraged Iraq to create a national guard as a means of facilitating the creation of local security forces and the arming of Sunni tribes, but legislation to that effect has languished for months.

The president did not let the US and other countries off the hook in explaining the setbacks that Iraq has experienced in the fight with IS, noting in particular that neighboring and Western countries have failed to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.

The international effort to address the influx of foreign fighters seeking to fight for IS – an effort Obama launched last September with a special session of the United Nations Security Council – has “made some progress, but not enough,” he said.

The US and European countries have to do a better job of stopping their citizens who aim to join the ranks of IS, but he also singled out Turkey for failing to adequately control its border with Syria – the border that most foreign fighters cross to join IS, also known as ISIL. 

“If we can cut off some of that foreign fighter flow, then we are able to isolate and wear out ISIL forces that are already there,” Obama said, using the acronym for IS that the US government prefers. “We are taking a lot of them off the battlefield," he added, "but if they’re being replenished, then it doesn’t solve the problem over the long term.”

Obama also made the “no complete strategy” comment last August, when he said the administration had to consult with Congress and foreign partners who would be called on to join an anti-IS coalition before formulating a plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said then. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Obama’s suggestion nearly a year later that the formulation of a “complete strategy” is being held up at least to some degree by a lack of Iraqi political action does not appear to have satisfied all the president’s critics.

“What has President Obama been doing for 10 months?” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in a riposte to the president’s comments sent out to reporters.

“Nearly a year after first saying he didn’t have a strategy to combat ISIS,” said Mr. Short, using another acronym for IS, “President Obama again today said there is still not a complete strategy to take on the terrorist group.”

But some regional analysts heard Obama’s comment as something of a warning to the Iraqi government – and principally to Prime Minister Abadi – that receiving stepped-up assistance depends on their political actions.

“This was very definitely aimed at Abadi and the Iraqis,” says Lawrence Korb, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former Pentagon official. “It was meant to send him a message to get going and do some of the things we think are holding up progress” against IS.

The White House saw in Abadi “a more inclusive leader” than Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite hard-liner he replaced, but has since realized that Abadi is either unwilling or politically unable to draw in a suspicious Sunni community, Mr. Korb says.

Obama has misspoken on IS before, Korb says, notably when he compared the extremist group to a “JV team” or even when he’s suggested IS might be quickly pushed back and “destroyed.”

But he says that the “strategy” makes sense as a message to the Iraqi government.

“You need a ‘complete strategy,’ but right now there can’t be one without the Iraqis,” Korb says. “Militarily you can bomb with 4,000 airstrikes and ... kill 10,000 of their fighters. But without the Iraqis buying in and being willing to fight and die for their country,” he adds, “it’s not going to work no matter what strategy you have.”

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