clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama told ISIS in advance that he was going to launch airstrikes in Syria. Was that a mistake?

Obama delivers his September 10th strategy outlining the counter-ISIS strategy.
Obama delivers his September 10th strategy outlining the counter-ISIS strategy.
Saul Loeb/Pool/Getty Images
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.

When American warplanes began hitting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets on Monday night, no one was exactly surprised. In Obama's September 10 speech outlining America's strategy to "destroy and defeat" ISIS, he made it very, very clear that the American air war against ISIS was going to expand from Iraq into Syria.

But was that such a good idea? It seems, intuitively, that telegraphing your punches isn't the smartest military strategy, and some critics are already suggesting as much. Yet, there's also a strong case that, as the leader of a democratic nation, Obama needed to publicly announce a military campaign in a new country despite the risk.

Which argument is right? Here's a brief case for each side of the argument.

The case against announcing strikes

(Joe Posner)

This argument is purely military, and pretty easy to understand: if Obama wanted to deal a punishing blow to ISIS, he wouldn't give them any time to prepare for US airstrikes. It's not like the Emperor of Japan sent the US a telegram before Pearl Harbor.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like ISIS took advantage of the advance warning in Obama's speech. US warplanes bombed a number of targets in Raqqa, the sole Syrian province that ISIS controls in full, which ISIS seems to have been ready for. The Wall Street Journal's Maria Abi-Habib, citing testimony from Raqqa residents, reported that ISIS "had also been preparing for the airstrikes, moving its top leadership and most sophisticated weapons from Raqqa."

To make matters worse, airstrikes are comparatively easy to prepare for. The US can't hit ISIS targets in densely populated areas without risking significant loss of civilian life, which would be moral and strategic disaster. Moving advanced weaponry and infantry units into cities and towns is an easy way to stay the US's hand.

ISIS also could use the advance warning to, simply enough, make it hard for the US to find them. American airstrikes depend on good intelligence: one of the core reasons it took Obama months to escalate against ISIS in Iraq after the group's shocking Iraq victories in June is that the US didn't have good enough intelligence on ISIS positions to hit them accurately. Obama's speech may well have given ISIS what it needed to survive this first round of bombing in a way that reduced their actual damage.

The case for announcing strikes

A US cruise missile fired in the Red Sea on Monday, September 22nd. (Carlos M. Vazquez II/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

In purely military terms, the argument that Obama gave away the game by announcing strikes implies that Obama could have dealt a serious blow to ISIS if only they hadn't had warning about impending Syria strike. But the truth is that strikes were probably only going to do so much damage in either case.

Basically everyone agrees that ISIS can't be dislodged without a serious ground offensive by some American partner on the ground. In this case, that means moderate Syrian rebels. The theory behind airstrikes isn't that the US will blow up enough ISIS targets to make a rebel victory inevitable. It's that the US will soften up ISIS fortifications, threaten its vulnerable supply lines, and then give close air support for Syrian rebels. The administration thinks victory in this campaign will take at least three years. There's no way the US could strike a decisive blow against a force like ISIS on the first day, as the minor progress in Iraq proves.

And whatever you might say about ISIS, they aren't stupid. After the US began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq in August, ISIS had to prepare for the possibility that the American campaign would extend to their bases in Syria. It's unlikely Obama's September 10 speech was a big surprise, and in any case it didn't announce the precise date American strikes in Syria would begin.

Finally — and perhaps decisively — Obama has a democratic obligation to be up-front about a new war. This isn't some ramshackle CIA operation: the US air war extending into Syria is a major commitment, one that's considerably more involved than the already-hard campaign against ISIS in Iraq. The democratic system of governance demands that the American people be informed in advance of a plan taken out in their names, so there could be at least a theoretical possibility of popular and Congressional deliberation and consent.

In 2013, the last time Obama proposed a bombing campaign in Syria, Congress looked ready to vote his plan down, and opinion polls showed that Americans widely opposed it. The president also hasn't forgotten his predecessor's rush to war, which he condemned in 2002 as a "cynical attempt" by "armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats."

Given that Obama is relying on legally dubious theories to circumvent Congress this time around, there's a compelling case that Obama needed to at least inform Congress and the public in order to maintain the minimal level of democratic legitimacy for the bombing campaign in Syria.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.