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The huge gamble at the heart of Obama's Iraq strategy

A Kurdish soldier.
A Kurdish soldier.
Spencer Platt
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Obama's new Iraq strategy — bombing the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Iraqi Kurdistan, and pushing for political reform in the rest of the country before considering expanding the campaign to the rest of ISIS-held territory in Iraq — may be the right call, but it certainly is risky. One paragraph from one of America's most eminent military analysts explains the biggest reason why.

Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he supports Obama's strategy, for now. But he thinks it's premised on a huge gamble. Essentially, Obama is betting that if he prevents ISIS from making major gains, and if Iraq can reform its political system to better include Sunnis, the group will collapse on its own. But, as Cordesman points out, we can't be sure that's true:

Much ultimately depends on the Islamic State being so extreme in dealing with fellow Sunnis that it becomes its own enemy — cannot really unify those it tries to govern and integrate into its forces and cannot operate as an effective government. So far, the Islamic State does seem sufficiently extreme and self-destructive to follow this path, but it is not forced to do so, does show some signs of adapting, and has not yet provoked significant internal Sunni fighting against it. Betting against its lasting success seems to be reasonable, but it is scarcely certain.

ISIS does have a long history of overreach. An important reasons for the downfall of its predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, is that its brutal rule alienated its Sunni base of support. But so far, ISIS has avoided that trap in both Syria and in Iraq, suggesting it may be smarter as well as more militarily competent than it used to be.

A big question, then, is what does Obama do if ISIS advances despite the US dropping bombs and arming the Kurds? Does he upgrade the level of US involvement, thus pulling him into exactly the sort of open-ended engagement he'd hoped to avoid? Hopefully, ISIS will crumble under its own weight, but Cordesman has a real point here.