Strategists, policy makers and political pundits of all persuasions have questioned President Obama’s strategy for the threats in Iraq and Syria. So perhaps a good place for this strategy blog to begin the New Year is with the best explanation of that strategy I have seen.
Curiously (or perhaps tellingly) that explanation is not from a Presidential speech or official document, but from a news article in the Wall Street Journal. Dated Dec. 27, 2014, and titled The Weekend Interview with John Allen: Inside the War Against the Islamic State , it identifies five “common purposes” shared by the 60 international partners supposedly dedicated to the defeat of IS:
· Winning the military campaign,
· Disrupting the flow of foreign fighters,
· Countering IS finance,
· Providing humanitarian relief, and
· Delegitimizing the ideology of IS as a movement.
This is far from a COMPLETE strategy, as the partners must operationalize and then accomplish each “purpose.” HOW, for example, are we going to win the military campaign against 30,000 fanatics now carefully mixed in with a civilian populace? HOW are we going to disrupt the flow of fighters from Western nations sensitive to civil liberties and careful to protect individual rights? But it does offer a framework for thinking about what set of causes might result in the desired effect – the defeat and destruction of the Islamic State in a way that prevents its resurgence.
Allen, for those who do not know, is a retired four-star Marine, and President Obama's "special envoy" to the several-score nations and groups who have joined in opposition to the Islamic State. To his credit, reporter Joseph Rago pressed Allen for an explanation of the planned “end state,” and received an instructive answer.
The central threat of IS, Allen argues, is not just to the people of Iraq or even the US, but to the interpretation of Islam. If the radical IS vision takes root, then every more moderate interpretation in the world becomes the target of conquest and subjugation. As a measure of the extremist nature of this vision, the global terror group Al Qaeda is on the IS list as too moderate. Thus it goes without saying that governments with which the West regularly cooperates (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Pakistan, etc.) would ultimately be targeted as enemies.
Allen’s solution – which is to say, the solution proposed by President Obama and his partners – is “to delegitimize Daesh [Allen refers to IS by an Arabic term], and expose it for what it really is.” Presumably this means to demonstrate that the violence and intolerance demonstrated by IS is counter-Islamic in its ideology and its actions. The problem with this approach is that the violence and intolerance is not being hidden – it is in fact a major point of attraction for new adherents. The central message of IS is that their extreme vision of Islamic belief and practice is the correct interpretation; enforcing it pleases Allah by doing his will.
The strategic logic here leads to a striking conclusion: “that the war the US is waging against IS in Iraq and Syria ‘belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what [Alan] describes as ‘the rescue of Islam.’" Ultimately then, the strategy of our President and his partner nations is to buy Muslims and Muslim regimes enough time and space to develop a convincing explanation of why the Islamic States’ interpretation of Islam is wrong, and why a more tolerant vision that can strike peaceful accommodations with other believers and non-believers is correct.
Kudos to General Alan for his coherent explanation, and to reporter Joseph Rago for putting these critical concepts together in a single short article. Now at least the American people can debate the Administration’s approach to IS with an objective understanding of the intent, and without political baggage and invective. I remain skeptical. But at least we have a place to begin a useful debate.