In his September 10 address to the nation, President Obama declared America’s war aims with regards to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL): “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” I wrote several pieces that pointed out how this was an unrealistic and unachievable strategic objective. Just as Presidents Bush and Obama previously vowed to “eliminate” or “destroy” several militant or terrorist organizations, and failed completely each time, I believed that it was a certainty that the United States would not destroy ISIS. My opinion was, in part, informed by conversations with State Department and Pentagon officials and staffers who unanimously thought that the “destroy” objective was unobtainable and should never have been articulated with such a maximalist term.
Several Pentagon officials and outside experts were soon trying to convince senior White House officials to stop using “destroy” and replace it with the more plausible and undefined objective of “defeat.” The State Department special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, ret. Gen. John Allen, refrained from using the word, and it, not coincidentally, appears nowhere on the webpage that describes his activities. Legislation drafted by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to authorize the use of force against ISIS, which passed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 11, also excluded “destroy,” stating instead that the United States and its partners should “degrade and defeat ISIL.” Finally, during his confirmation hearing last week to become secretary of defense, Ashton Carter similarly never used “destroy,” but rather “defeat” several times, including in his prepared statement and in responding to Senators’ questions: “I certainly hope that we defeat ISIS quickly. But that won’t be a lasting defeat necessarily unless we have a political dimension to that defeat as well as a military defeat.”
While the two strategic objectives may appear to have similar meanings, they are distinct both in military doctrine and in their common sense understandings. To “defeat” is to prevent an adversary from achieving its objectives through disruption and attrition, while “destroy” is to defeat an adversary to the extent that it ceases to function and can never be reconstituted. The latter is vastly more difficult and resource intensive, but it also sounds tough and decisive. Articulating tough sounding objectives for terrorist organizations—which have never been achieved—has been standard White House practice for over fourteen years, but that was no reason for President Obama to continue this misleading practice. Subsequently, I wrote an October 12 piece titled “Obama Should Change his Counter-ISIS Strategy,” in which I proposed that the president“be realistic and honest with the American people up front” and stop using “destroy.”
I was pleased to see that this has been formally adopted in the White House’s new National Security Strategy. In Obama’s introductory letter, he writes: “We are leading over 60 partners in a global campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant;” and then later on page 2: “degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL;” page 10: “We have undertaken a comprehensive effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL;” and page 26: “With our partners in the region and around the world, we are leading a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
It is noteworthy that this updated language is not only more in line with reality, but includes a temporal qualifier—“ultimately”—for when this less ambitious end state might be achieved. In other words, Americans should not expect this to occur on Obama’s watch. However, the president deserves credit for acknowledging that he made a strategic error on September 10, to the disappointment of many senior U.S. national security officials, when he declared an unachievable strategic objective. This is truly a “realist” foreign policy strategic change that should be admired and exemplified by future presidents.