Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama’s New ISIS Strategy: Reflecting Reality

by Micah Zenko
February 10, 2015

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. (Bruch/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)


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.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Hogwash. Words mean nothing. This is just more of them. More examples of the Obama administration’s practice of attempting to reduce every challenge it faces to one of semantics. “Destroy”, “degrade”, “defeat”: [extracted]. More window dressing for a foreign mission lacking any clear goal or sound measure by which it can be judged accomplished.

    You have judged said so yourself. The Administation’s “realistic” plan is to just pass this problem on to the next. It is only doing what it must do to avoid criticism and condemnation. Nothing more.

  • Posted by Beauceron

    This administration can’t even bring itself to state that the Islamic State has anything at all to do with Islam. So…we are not going to defeat it when our government can’t even name it.

    Perhaps if they were to rename themselves “Misinterpreters of the Entirely Peaceful and Good Religion of Islam Who Perpetrate Random Acts of Violence for Unknown Causes” we might stand a chance. That, or call themselves Christians…

  • Posted by Magnus Sandvik

    Semantics will not make any difference. At this point, ISIS is just another head on the Hydra of radical, political islam, and as with the hydra, for every head you chop off, 2 new ones appear. the only way to defeat it is to strike at its heart: the underlying ideology.
    But an ideology cannot be bombed into submission. If the past 15 years has taught us anything is that bombing only draws in more recruits, So what do you do? You present a better alternative. Encouraging the governments of Iraq and Syria to emerge as functional governments that don’t disenfranchise any of its citizens, but instead provides a release valve for all the pent up frustrations of those who have now taken to arms, and you will se, at least, a reduction in radicalization. If they are busy with jobs and families, they will no longe have time for needless slaughter.

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