Critics are understandably lambasting the president for the apparent dilatoriness, and I have some sympathy for the critique. If you begin the clock with President Obama’s remarkable January 2014 dismissal of the Islamic State as a “jayvee threat” — something the White House still pretends the president did not say, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and trace the president’s response to the growing Islamic State threat, the charge of delinquency is almost impossible to deny.
“In the absence of U.S. leadership, local partners did not step up quickly enough to stop the Islamic State when the threat could be easily contained. Now rolling back the group’s advances requires more punch than the locals can deliver without a substantial increase in American commitment.”
Yet, in this instance, I think the critics and the president are both wrong. The problem is not an absence of strategy, it is that the strategy that does exist is failing and the administration is not yet willing to admit that fact.
The strategy is pretty self-evident: U.S. forces are operating under stringent self-imposed limitations so as to incentivize local partners (the Iraqi government, Sunni tribes, and moderate rebels in Syria) to do more. The United States is prepared perhaps to do a bit more if local actors do a lot more, but if local actors do not step up, the United States is not prepared to do more. On the contrary, the United States is prepared to accept hitherto “unacceptable” setbacks — the fall of Mosul, the fall of Ramadi, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the regional expansion of Iranian-backed terrorist organizations and militias, and on and on — rather than intervene more decisively.
“This is a recognizable strategy. There is even a catchy name for it: leading from behind.”
The problem with the strategy is that it is not working, in the sense of advancing U.S. interests in the region and achieving the stated objectives (“destroy and degrade ISIL”). In the absence of U.S. leadership, local partners did not step up quickly enough to stop the Islamic State when the threat could be easily contained. Now rolling back the group’s advances requires more punch than the locals can deliver without a substantial increase in American commitment.
But under President Obama’s strategy, that cannot happen because the strategy is premised on the assumption that American commitments produce less partner activity (because they encourage the partners to free-ride on us) whereas stepping back incentivizes the partners to step up. The strategy literally assumes away the obvious alternative recommended by the more hawkish critics.
Figuring out that you are pursuing a losing strategy is more difficult than outsiders might believe. I am in the middle of a major research project exploring the decision making behind President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge strategy change and the new material the project is producing is so far confirming what earlier studies found: that President Bush’s decision for the surge required him to make at least two analytically distinct (yet both very difficult) determinations.
First, it required that he conclude that the existing strategy was likely leading to failure, not success — that is, that the strategy could not be salvaged with a few tweaks or with gutting it out….(read more)