Obama's ISIS Strategy Will Not Achieve Its Goals, Security Insiders Say
But a majority of the same experts say that the U.S. is safer now than it was before the 9/11 attacks.
The president's strategy of launching air strikes against ISIS and arming its opponents will not achieve the goal of "degrading and destroying" the group, according to 63 percent of National Journal's Security Insiders.
Some Insiders who said the campaign would meet its goals were confident in the ability of U.S. air power to tamp down ISIS. "Air strikes have already had a great effect—the situation on the ground in Iraq has stabilized."
"There is much less than meets the eye with ISIS when it comes to military capability," one insider said.
Other Insiders qualified their affirmative answers, predicting that the U.S. campaign would find success only if it were persistently pursued, "aggressively and over sufficient time."
But even if the campaign triumphs and ISIS is destroyed, one Insider said, the fight won't be over. The effort will succeed in degrading and destroying the group, but it will not prevent "the emergence of some new form of it, no."
A number of Insiders said that the air strikes would degrade but not destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. "As we should have learned with al-Qaida," one said, " 'destroying' is an elusive objective." Another elaborated: "We need to acknowledge that groups like this cannot be 'destroyed' in the sense of ceasing to exist. This is a struggle that will not end and that will never be completed."
Many of the Insiders who did not predict the air power campaign will succeed called for greater U.S. involvement. "This is a boots-on-the-ground exercise, and the president has once again proven he doesn't get our nation's leadership responsibilities in the world," one Insider said. Another said that it's "naïve to think enemies can be defeated without U.S. ground forces."
Some Insiders called for more than just the involvement of ground troops. The campaign will succeed only if it's matched by a simultaneous "diplomatic and economic raid to get at the root causes of ISIS." A comprehensive strategy to fight ISIS, one Insider said, would involve "denying funds, denying recruiting, denying relocation, and separating and protecting affected civilians."
And one Insider suggested that U.S. involvement in the absence of a combat presence may need to take on an unprecedented scale. "Without ground forces of some flavor, perhaps the cynical Israeli strategy of 'mowing the grass' every few years is where we must go."
A slimmer majority of the same panel of experts—57 percent—said that they think the U.S. is safer today than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Of those that agreed that the country is more secure, most cited beefed-up and well-funded defensive measures.
"Border controls and internal security are tighter now," one Insider said. "Not even a close call," said another. "Improved intelligence, defense, and offense—even if one assumes the threat is greater—makes the U.S. far better positioned to stop catastrophic attacks from occurring."
"I should hope" America is safer, one Insider said, "After all the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on homeland defense and counterterrorism"
But many experts who consider the U.S. safer acknowledged that the threat to the country has grown since before the 2001 attacks. "We are more threatened now than we were at the start of the Obama administration, with a resurgent al-Qaida and now ISIS' terrorist army."
Most Insiders who do not think the U.S. is safer said that homeland security has not kept up with the growing threat from the outside world. "The terrorist threat has adapted and metastasized, and ISIL poses the next evolution in threat," said one Insider, referring to ISIS by a different name. "It is different, and we are not safer."
"ISIS has a standing army and at least three divisions' worth of U.S.-supplied armaments and a safe haven that has dissolved the Iraqi-Syria border," an expert elaborated. "Can it be any worse?"
"I think despite all the gross levels of spending on homeland security," another said, "Islamic extremists' worldwide ability to recruit locals to their radical causes leaves us just as vulnerable to attack."
One Insider blamed politicians for letting politics come before homeland security. "The question should be, 'How much longer will America remain safe after the 9/11 attacks when both the White House and Congress refuse to provide the necessary resources to protect the nation?' For the last 13 years, we've done well, but it's all about how well we prepare for the future. And right now the president and Congress have placed party politics above national security."
Will the president's strategy of launching air strikes against ISIS and arming its opponents achieve the goal of "degrading and destroying" the group?
Yes: 37% / No: 63%
"Air strikes have already had a great effect—the situation on the ground in Iraq has stabilized. ISIS is more a conventional military than terrorist group, which makes them vulnerable to U.S. air power in a way that al-Qaida, or even al-Qaida in Iraq, was not. The arming of opponents is a terrible idea that ISIS has already nullified by making a nonaggression pact with other groups."
"There is much less than meets the eye with ISIS when it comes to military capability."
"Yes, but it will take time. ISIS's strength is its ability to generate public attention by capturing territory and committing atrocities. U.S. air power will make it increasingly hard for them to operate in the open, forcing them underground where they will not be able to attract as much public attention."
"Yes, but only if it is pursued aggressively and over sufficient time."
"Yes, IF it's a more intensive air campaign and not what we've seen over the past few weeks."
"Degrading and destroying the group, yes; preventing the emergence of some new form of it, no."
"Yes in part—such air strikes will certainly degrade ISIS, but it will take continuous pressure to destroy the entity."
"Degrade, yes; destroy, no."
"May not solve it completely, but yes, it will help. And hopefully it will prevent loss of American lives by not being on the ground. We have lost enough servicemen and women to this war overseas."
"Degrade, yes. But as we should have learned with al-Qaida, 'destroying' is an elusive objective."
"Degrade? Yes. Destroy? Only temporarily, if even that limited objective."
"We need to acknowledge that groups like this cannot be 'destroyed' in the sense of ceasing to exist. This is a struggle that will not end and that will never be completed."
"Only if we simultaneously do a diplomatic and economic raid to get at the root causes of ISIS."
"No. This is a boots-on-the-ground exercise, and the president has once again proven he doesn't get our nation's leadership responsibilities in the world. This is a slow-roll response meant to placate those who want action. ISIS will remain undeterred."
"Degrading, yes; destroying, no. There needs to be a much more robust ground component involved in the campaign to destroy ISIS, especially in Syria. To make indigenous forces more capable, they will need to be bolstered by U.S. Special Forces. This means a limited number of 'boots on the ground,' which the president ruled out yesterday. So stay tuned."
"Will need more boots on ground to achieve the goal."
"Defeating an insurgency requires ground forces, either host nation or American. Our air power will enable ground forces to defeat IS forces and establish a secure environment. The White House must understand that the other underlying factors require an Iraqi solution to other grievances, something Obama's 'no boots on the ground' policy cannot accomplish."
"Will need much more. Sooner or later, they will adjust to air threat. Progress will be slow."
"You can't win a war and destroy the enemy without ground troops."
"It will degrade, but not destroy, ISIS. Destroying ISIS will require capable ground forces supported by U.S. advisers."
"Air strikes will have limited success in degrading ISIS military capabilities. Defeating ISIS requires a comprehensive strategy that includes denying funds, denying recruiting, denying relocation, and separating and protecting affected civilians. Naïve to think enemies can be defeated without U.S. ground forces."
"Degrade, yes; destroy, no. We need to ramp ISR to find and fix, but it will require forces on the ground to finish and kill. We have allowed them to morph into a maneuver force where they own the ground, improved their kit, and are well-resourced; this will be really hard and they will leverage their Western passport holders to attack the West."
"You can't conduct such missions successfully with air power alone, and relying on untested foreign partners, many of them having dubious loyalties, is no way to 'degrade and destroy' anything like ISIS."
"Air power has never won a war; the Iraqi forces were trained for a decade, and melted away. They will do so again. The Syrian moderates are far fewer today than they were three years ago, when we should have armed them."
"We see how well that has worked in Yemen given that AQAP is widely seen as posing the most serious threat to U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland of any al-Qaida franchise. And, for all the degrading of al-Shabaab in Somalia, a year ago, it was still capable of mounting the highly alarming Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi."
"The piecemealing nature of the announced strategy is guaranteed to lead to the ultimate commitment of U.S. land forces (of course, only when our advantages are reduced)—many just don't want to face that now. It is a reminder of the 'cheap and easy' approach that the Rumsfeld team was selling in late 2002 and early 2003 and many are selling on future war. War is never cheap and easy, especially if you want to be decisive. But it can be cheaper and easier if you face facts up front. See two pieces that take a hard and sobering look at Israel's recent Operation Protective Edge in Gaza: "Israel's Operation Protective Edge: Showcase for the Limits of Precision Strike" by Michael Carl Haas in the National Interest, and "The Grim Lessons of 'Protective Edge' " by RAND's Raphael Cohen and Gabriel Scheinmann. With literally years of intelligence preparation, a postage stamp target area (41 miles by 8 miles), and over 5,500 targets struck (mostly by air) in 50 days, Hamas was indeed degraded. Yet with all that effort Hamas is far from defeated and even farther from being destroyed. What does that portend for what we are facing? Air power will be hugely effective in the coming months and years against ISIL—but we all know it will not be decisive. Without ground forces of some flavor, perhaps the cynical Israeli strategy of "mowing the grass" every few years is where we must go."
"Three words: Syria, Syria, Syria. And we still don't really have a strategy. At best we have a strategy for degrading the organization in Iraq and a light plan for doing so in Syria."
The president said America is safer today. Do you agree that America is safer than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?
Yes: 57% / No: 43%
"Because we're more vigilant."
"Mostly because of defensive countermeasures."
"Border controls and internal security are tighter now."
"America is safer today in large part because of the increased defensive measures implemented. Being safer does not mean that the U.S. will not be attacked. A larger number of terrorist groups may be successful in getting a few trained U.S. or Western documented individuals into position to carry out small-scale attacks."
"I should hope so after all the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on homeland defense and counterterrorism. That said, 9/11, like Pearl Harbor and other strategic surprises, was a combination of failure of imagination and failure to read the clear signal through the noise. Both kinds of failings are endemic to human nature. Safer but never safe."
"Not even a close call. Improved intelligence, defense, and offense—even if one assumes the threat is greater—makes the U.S. far better positioned to stop catastrophic attacks from occurring."
"Yes. However you cut it politically, we now take terrorist threats to our homeland seriously."
"The U.S. has in place much greater security protections, awareness is higher, the international community is mobilized, and al-Qaida is weakened."
"This is a more vigilant country and a more vigilant government."
"On balance, America is safer because of the many billions of dollars we have spent on enhanced intelligence, law enforcement, military, and other capabilities that deter, detect, and intercept terrorist efforts, even though we now live in a more dangerous world than we did 13 years ago."
"On balance, we are safer today, but it is hard to measure 'safety.' It's a combination of awareness, preparation, threat, resilience, and capability to respond. On all of those measures, America is better today than in 2001. But the threat is also more diverse and harder to detect, deter, or defeat."
"Our foreign policies would be dramatically improved if voters got the message from policy elites that we are the most secure great power in modern history."
"Safer today than before 9/11/01 with our homeland security and intelligence capabilities, but we are more threatened now than we were at the start of the Obama administration with a resurgent al-Qaida and now ISIS' terrorist army."
"The question should be, 'How much longer will America remain safe after the 9/11 attacks when both the White House and Congress refuse to provide the necessary resources to protect the nation?' For the last 13 years we've done well, but it's all about how well we prepare for the future. And right now the president and Congress have placed party politics above national security."
"The threat remains real and, with ISIS, genuinely strong. But we are a tough target, due largely to all the steps we have taken since 9/11."
"While the diversity of potential threats may be greater, the ability of ISIS and other actors to attempt a significant attack against the U.S. is very low. The threat is still high overseas, but that was true before and after 9/11."
"Absolutely not. The threat has grown much more complicated and diverse. The enemy has more safe havens. They have a greater reach into the U.S. The threat has evolved and is more dangerous and complicated than it was in 2001."
"American is less safe but primarily because there is much more turmoil in the world than there was before 9/11."
"Al-Qaida is present in more places than it was before 9/11, and we now have an al-Qaida splinter (ISIS) competing with the core. The splinter has a standing army and at least three divisions' worth of U.S. supplied armaments and a safe haven that has dissolved the Iraqi-Syria border. Can it be any worse? The U.S. may not perhaps be vulnerable to another 9/11 attack—but 3/11/14 or 7/7/05 types of attacks on mass transit or a Westgate mall attack is not impossible: after all, a teenager and his only slightly older brother paralyzed Boston and shut down Logan Airport."
"Homeland security is certainly much improved, but the ability to deter challengers of all sorts is degraded."
"Invading Iraq needlessly was the cause of much of the current state of affairs. Naivete re: the ability and the receptivity of Middle Eastern tribal and religious cultural leaders to embrace Western-style democracy is another big factor."
"I think despite all the gross levels of spending on homeland security, Islamic extremists' worldwide ability to recruit locals to their radical causes leaves us just as vulnerable to attack."
"That was the weirdest part of the speech. You have to ask yourself why we would have to destroy ISIS if we are truly safer than we were since before 9/11. It simply fails the commonsense test."
"The terrorist threat has adapted and metastasized, and ISIL poses the next evolution in threat; it is different, and we are not safer."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Michael Allen, Thad Allen, Graham Allison, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Mike Breen, Paula Broadwell, Mark Brunner, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Janine Davidson, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Todd Harrison, Marty Hauser, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Mark Jackson, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Michael Leiter, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Michael Morell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Barry Rhoads, Wilhelm Richard, Bruce Riedel, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Gary Samore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, Tammy Schultz, John Scofield, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, James Stavridis, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the September 18, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Insiders: Obama’s ISIS Strategy Won’t Achieve Its Goals.