Days after Ashton Carter became defense secretary, he huddled with 30 American diplomats and generals on a U.S. Army base in Kuwait to review President Barack Obama’s plan for battling Islamic State.
Emerging from the six-hour meeting, Carter delivered his verdict: The U.S., he said, has “the ingredients” of a strategy.
That less-than-stellar endorsement of the president’s response to a major security threat comes six months after Obama promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. As Islamic State vows to consolidate its rule, Obama’s plan is being criticized on both political and military grounds.
While the struggle against the extremists offers few good choices, Obama’s centralized management style and reliance upon aides who lack significant Middle East or military experience have fueled the problem, critics say. A White House bureaucracy that slows decisions, and Obama’s determination to avoid a new ground war, also contribute to what the skeptics call paralysis.
“We have a public-relations strategy, not a geopolitical war-fighting strategy,” says Bing West, a former Marine who worked in the Ronald Reagan-era Pentagon and has written 10 books on the military.
As the U.S. ponders its next steps, Iran is solidifying its role as the dominant influence on Iraq, joining Shiite militias in a battle for Tikrit, a Sunni-majority city about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad. American airpower, which has been active in northern Iraq, isn’t involved.
The administration has repeatedly caused difficulties for itself. On Feb. 19, the Pentagon sketched for reporters the outlines of a campaign to begin evicting Islamic State fighters from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as early as April.
It quickly became clear that the Iraqi army was in no shape to attack on that schedule. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told Congress it would take six to nine months to assemble the needed combat power.
And after Obama last year ruled out the use of American ground troops, saying “we’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back,” General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said some U.S. soldiers might be needed to direct air strikes as the Iraqis advanced.
Obama’s communications skills sometimes have deserted him. He initially dismissed the terrorist group, also known as ISIS, as a “jayvee” squad before saying in September that the U.S. would destroy them. Last month, that vow was quietly rewritten to “defeat.”
The president’s special envoy on ISIS, retired Marine General John Allen, told lawmakers last month the U.S. won’t “eradicate or annihilate” Islamic State but will render it unable to pose an existential threat to Iraq or anyone else.
Administration officials say they are making headway. More than 2,600 air strikes by the U.S., and its European and Arab allies, have killed about 8,500 ISIS warriors and destroyed more than 1,000 tanks and vehicles in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. Central Command and the administration.
The Pentagon estimates current ISIS manpower at 25,000 to 31,000, with about two-thirds of that in Syria.
“The military effort is chugging along; there is progress there,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst. “The political piece is absolutely not keeping pace,” he said, referring to the Iraqi government’s struggle to regain the trust of the Sunnis, who have suffered under its rule.
Obama himself addressed that issue on March 8. “The only way to maintain long-term stability inside of Iraq is if the Sunni minority feels invested in their country the same way that the Shia majority does,” he told CBS Sunday Morning.
Still, Obama’s critics say the president’s method of making decisions is compounding the difficulties of the anti-ISIS effort. Wary of outsiders, including the uniformed military, Obama relies for counsel on White House confidants such as Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Valerie Jarrett, his senior adviser.
In August 2013, after first saying that any Syrian chemical weapons use would cross a “red line,” Obama surprised the Pentagon by canceling plans for punitive missile strikes. The about-face came after a private walk with McDonough on the White House South Lawn.
“Decision-making is concentrated in a little clique around the president whose members are without profound political-diplomatic experience of their own,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “They’re creatures of the Washington bubble.”
That bubble has expanded over the years into a sizable bureaucracy: The National Security Council staff has grown to more than 350 people, up from about 50 in the early 1990s.
In his 2014 memoir “Duty,” Robert Gates, who served as Defense secretary under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, wrote that civilian White House aides routinely telephoned four-star generals with instructions. Political appointees interfered with the Pentagon’s operations in Haiti, Libya and Afghanistan, “taking micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” he wrote.
The flip side of a system where so much power resides in the White House is that nothing happens until the commander-in-chief commands. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that Obama has dithered for months over a proposal to establish a haven inside Syria where U.S.-trained rebels could gather.
Establishing such a no-fly zone is a condition for greater involvement in the fight by Turkey, a Muslim country with a well-regarded military.
“There are decisions that haven’t been made that everyone knows have to be made,” Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said at a Bloomberg breakfast on Feb. 26. “And so people wonder what the administration’s real commitment is.”
What critics see as presidential indecisiveness, the White House bills as the wisdom not to make a bad situation worse. The U.S. already tried pacifying Iraq with a large land force, and the result was the sectarian conflict that spawned ISIS, says one senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the terrorist group.
The U.S. instead wants to sever the group’s financing, blunt its social media message, prevent new recruits from reaching the battlefield and provide humanitarian aid to those fleeing Islamic State’s brutality.
The president’s caution may be well-founded. ISIS would love nothing better than to suck American soldiers into a battle it could advertise as a war on Islam.
Time will resolve some of the questions. If Dempsey says the Iraqi assault on Mosul will fail without a few thousand U.S. boots on the ground, the political reality is that he will probably get them. And an about-face in public attitudes may pave the way: In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 62 percent of respondents said they backed the idea of using U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, the threat spreads. Groups pledging allegiance to ISIS have sprouted in Nigeria, Egypt’s Sinai province, Libya, and Afghanistan, where almost 11,000 U.S. troops remain.
“There is a strategy, but the odds of it working are pretty damn limited,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not necessarily because of the administration. There aren’t really any good options.”