The last two days have seen a maelstrom of media attention to President Obama’s admission that he currently does not have a strategy for attacking or containing ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Syria. It is no surprise that those on the right criticized Obama’s candid remarks, and it is equally not surprising that the left is attempting some sort of damage control, noting that perhaps the “no strategy” comment is really Obama holding his cards close to his chest. What seems to be missing from any of the discussion is what exactly he meant by “strategy,” and moreover, the difficult question of the end he would be seeking.
Let’s take the easy part first. Strategy, at least for the military, has a very particular meaning. It is about ends, ways and means of a military character. Indeed, strategy, as distinct from operational planning and tactics, is about the overall end state of a war (or “limited” war). The strategic goal, therefore, is about the desired state of affairs post bellum. It requires that one ask: What is it that I want to achieve? How would I get there through the use of force? “Strategy” is not tantamount to “planning,” and for the strategist, ought to be reserved for strictly military activities.
Once one identifies the desired end, one must then take this goal and break it down into more manageable pieces through another two levels: operations and tactics. The operational level concerns the middle term: it something beyond a particular tactic (say aerial bombardment of an enemy’s rear line), to something broader, say a collection of missions. All the operations ought to be directed toward some particular portion of the overall strategy. At each level a commander is issued a set of commands, and each commander then takes her orders and operationalizes them into how she thinks to best achieve those orders (commander’s intent). She does so by consulting with a variety of reporting officers (weaponeers, logistics, lawyers, etc.) This is a hierarchical and a horizontal process, and it always feeds back upon itself to ensure those goals are in fact being achieved. Or, at least, this is how the process ought to go.
It is, therefore, laudable that President Obama admitted that he does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. Why? Because, the desired “end goal,” of which any strategy necessarily requires, is not yet clear. Does the US want to “defeat” ISIS? Surely that is part of the equation, as Secretary of State Kerry called it a “cancer.” Yet there is more to this tale than merely quashing a group of radicalized, well-organized and heavily armed nonstate actors. The US military power could do this relatively quickly, if it desired to do so. But this would not “defeat” ISIS in the way of seeking a better peace or achieving one’s end goal. For taking it out does not entail that justice and harmony will prevail.
This brings us to the second and more difficult question: What is the desired end goal? While I am not privy to the Commander-in-Chief’s thought processes, nor am I present with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their briefings to the President, but as a student of strategy and an observer and academic, it appears to me that the President has not adequately formulated what this end goal ought to be yet. If one truly desires that ISIS is “defeated” this will take more than air strikes, it will take more than (whoever’s) boots on the ground. It will take establishing the rule of law, providing for basic needs, such as food, security and water, as well as jobs, education, and infrastructure. For ISIS is not a traditional “enemy,” it is a monster made from the blood, havoc, insecurity and fear that have ruled Syria for three years. This new crisis over ISIS does not come from nowhere: over three million Syrians are refugees; over six million are internally displaced; and almost two hundred thousand have died. Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity and war crimes provided the incubator for ISIS. Moreover, the world’s—not just the US’s—failure to do anything to protect the Syrian people and respond to Mr. Assad’s crimes generated an expanse for ISIS to grow and consolidate. That the international community manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the Syrian people is obvious, and it is equally obvious that one cannot ignore a crisis and think it will just go away.
Recall that at the very beginnings of the Syrian crisis, up until the (in)famous “red line” of chemical weapons, the US could not garner support from its allies or from its own people. The geopolitical situation then, while heavily dictated by Iran and Russia, is not much different. To be sure, Russia is clearly on its own dangerous course in Ukraine, and Iran has ISIS in its backyard, but there is no upwelling of international support to this cause.
Secretary of State Kerry’s op-ed in the New York Times calls for a “global coalition” to fight ISIS. Whether he realizes that this threat is not just about ISIS, that ISIS is merely a Golgothan of the Syrian civil war, is yet to be seen. To actually “defeat” ISIS is to remove the need for ISIS. ISIS has merely filled a Hobbesian vacuum where:
“The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place [in a state of nature]. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law; where no Law, no Injustice. Force and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. […] They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, para. 63.)
Yet if we view the fight against ISIS beyond the mere military victory, it is a fight against ideology, insecurity, and fear. Indeed it does require a global coalition, but one directed towards the establishment of peace and security in the Middle East – and beyond – and the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In this, it requires states to look beyond their immediate self-interests. Therefore, I am actually happy to see the President give pause. For maybe, just maybe, he too sees that the problem is larger than dropping tons of ordinance on an already destroyed nation. Maybe, just maybe, he sees that ISIS can only be defeated through broader cosmopolitan principles of justice. If this is too tall an order, then he must tread very carefully while formulating his restricted and “limited” strategy.