This Sunday, the New York Times published the details of the Obama administration's new plan to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The president will formally announce the plan in a Wednesday speech. Because it is being given by a politician, Obama's speech will pull punches. It also won't fully explain what the administration actually thinks about the crisis in Iraq and Syria. What follows is the speech Obama would give if he took a couple of truth pills before walking up to the lectern.
My fellow Americans,
Today, I'm here to talk to you about America's approach to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State, which I insist on calling ISIL even though everyone else calls it ISIS, currently controls a chunk of territory about the size of Maryland or Belgium. ISIS is an international terrorist group that was ejected from al-Qaeda for being too violent, so this is not good.
To counter the threat, I'm announcing a long-term, three step American plan for fighting ISIS. Step one is to keep doing what we're doing: bombing ISIS targets in Iraq. Step two involves a major commitment to train and equip the Iraqi army, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, and possibly even Sunni tribes that might rebel against ISIS. Step three is to launch some kind of air campaign against ISIS in Syria.
I'd like to say that this means I — finally — have a strategy for not just containing but defeating ISIS, and I've previously said that this is the goal.
But let me be clear: this plan won't destroy ISIS, now or possibly ever. This is just not something that we can accomplish without re-invading, and there is no way I'm going to end my presidency with a second major American occupation of Iraq. That being said, what I'm proposing has a decent shot at pushing the group out of Iraq. And right now, that's the best we can hope for.
Now, I know that I've said the point of our new plan is, eventually, "to defeat them." The truth is that I'm just saying that because it sounds better than "we're going to drop a lot of bombs in Iraq and Syria, and hope our allies there don't screw everything up."
I do not believe we can fully defeat ISIS. My predecessor deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq, and he still didn't manage to permanently defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. There is no silver bullet for destroying groups like ISIS. The American military is the finest fighting force in the world, but it can't solve every problem on its own.
So those who believe America can destroy ISIS if it simply applies enough force are wrong. But so too are those who want us to stand by and do nothing as a terrorist menace threatens the stability of the Middle East. I believe that there's a third way: the United States can, through force and diplomacy, slow ISIS's advance and roll back many of its gains in Iraq.
But make no mistake: it will not be easy, there is a high risk of failure, and even success will not be very satisfying. Our local partners are not very reliable, and my strategy is premised on the the gamble that we can get Iraqis and Syrians to step up to the plate, which they have shown next to zero willingness to do.
Iraq's Kurds are the best allies we've got, but they'd probably rather be trying to make their own country than saving Iraq — let alone occupying the Sunni Arab territory ISIS holds now.
So we'll have to partner with the central Iraqi government. I'm pretending, because my policy depends on it, that new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government is going to be great. But it probably won't, and we will probably have to hold his hand every grueling step of the way.
We have pushed out former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who exacerbated the crisis by mistreating Sunnis, but the best we could do was make him one of three new vice presidents. He may be a bad guy, but he still has a fair amount of political support among Iraqi Shias. So there's no guarantee our plan to roll back ISIS is going to work, because there's no guarantee the Iraqi government is going to address Sunni grievances, which is absolutely crucial to my plan working.
And that's the good news. The bad news is Syria.
As far as friends go, our best bet are the so-called moderate rebels, who I have personally resisted arming and supporting because I am concerned the weapons would end up going to ISIS. I now plan to try harder, but realistically that's not going to make them strong enough to take out ISIS on their own. Our other options include arming Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a branch of al-Qaeda, or partnering with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — who I still believe must go even though I've basically given up on ever making that happen.
In other words, either the United States can invade Syria, or we can partner with one of ISIS's three main enemies in Syria: weak rebels, a mass-murdering dictator, or a group that is literally al-Qaeda. We may launch some airstrikes, but these will not eliminate ISIS unless someone actually sends ground troops against them, and all of those options are totally unviable.
That's why I'm asking the American people to give our campaign in Syria at least three years, because that will stretch into the next administration when it won't be my problem anymore. Have fun figuring out how to deal with that one, Hillary.
I've said that my priority, first and foremost, is stabilizing the situation in Iraq. I believe my new plan has got a decent shot at accomplishing that. The current airstrike campaign has already pushed ISIS back, and while the new government might not be perfect, there's a chance they'll unite around the ISIS threat.
But our best hope, ultimately, is that ISIS will be its own worst enemy. They've been massacring civilians, imposing barbaric laws based on their misinterpretation of Islam, and trying to build a state on land that's ultimately economically unsustainable. Eventually, Iraqi Sunnis will determine that ISIS's path is not theirs. In other words, I am really hoping that this problem will sort of solve itself.
Pushing ISIS out of Iraq would be a major victory, even if it leaves the group with a base in Syria. It will blunt their recruiting drive, protect Iraqi minorities from genocide, limit the regional humanitarian crisis, and curtail ISIS's ability to harm global oil markets or launch transnational terrorist attacks. As for success in Syria, let me be frank: it's unlikely. America cannot solve all of the world's problems, and this is a big one.
So, on Wednesday, when I tell you that I've got a plan for destroying ISIS, you should know I'm overstating things. But I believe our policy is the best chance we have for at least preventing the total collapse of northern Iraq.
Thank you. God bless. And God bless the United States of America.