President Obama last week outlined his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Obama contends ISIL poses a threat to U.S. citizens and interests in the Middle East. If left unchecked he said the group could pose a threat outside the region, including the U.S., but ISIL does not yet pose a clear and present danger. Under the doctrine of preemption established by President G.W. Bush, and followed by President Obama, the U.S. will take limited action against ISIL to prevent its further development as a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and the U.S. homeland.
The details of Obama’s plan and the participation levels of coalition members will be sorted out in the coming days and weeks. The announced total complement of U.S. military personnel in Iraq will immediately rise to about 1,500. No U.S. ground maneuver units (e.g. combat brigades and divisions) will deploy. The plan calls for Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels to take the ground battle to ISIL under an air umbrella provided by the U.S. The ground component requires much greater clarification as it is fraught with complexity and risk.
The initial debate following Obama’s speech last week reveals weaknesses in the plan. The debate is necessary and healthy. It is important to define a clear objective much finer than simply to “degrade” ISIL or the false goal that it can be destroyed through limited military action. Holding fast to “no boots on the ground” is setting limits that are wrong and probably not true. U.S. special-forces are probably deployed now with Iraqi and Kurdish forces to provide intelligence, coordination, and targeting assistance. If they are not the mission may be at risk. One hopes that Obama will demonstrate healthy reluctance to expanded involvement, but also not be paralyzed to the point of mission failure or unnecessary risk to U.S. forces.
In addition to diminishing ISIL’s capacity in the short term through military action, Obama should focus rigorously on developing a long term counter-terrorism strategy that places the battle of ideas at the forefront. In his speech he for the first time acknowledged the need to counter a “warped ideology.” He has refused to acknowledge ideology as a motivator of Islamic terror groups until now. This position fed his first term tour of the world to apologize for past U.S. policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2009, “Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday.” His administration’s foreign policy was driven by an assumption clearly stated in his 2013 foreign policy speech at the National Defense University that “underlying grievances” feed extremism. The word “grievance” was also used in describing ISIL’s motivations in his speech last week, but the door was opened, and correctly so, to attribute ideology as a motivator of extremists.
Ideology does matter – it is all that matters in many jihadi groups. Radical Islamic jihad ideology must be acknowledged and addressed not on the battlefield by the U.S., but on the streets and in the schools and mosques of the Muslim world. The Recent Pew Research report, “Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East” indicates rising concern in Muslim countries about extremism, a major shift and growing trend. Now may be the ideal time for a rigorous effort by the U.S. to convince the only people capable of “ultimately destroying” the menace of ISIL and its ilk to take up the battle of ideas – Muslims.