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The real problems with Obama’s ISIS strategy, in one paragraph

(Mark Wilson/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.

Since the city of Ramadi fell to ISIS in mid-May, there's been an outpouring of criticism of the Obama administration's strategy for the ISIS war, some fair and some not. But now even some people who support Obama's approach are starting to get nervous. That should really worry an administration that is trying desperately to both beat back ISIS and keep the US out of another quagmire in Iraq at the same time. The more public criticism grows, the harder squaring that circle will be.

This paragraph, from a Friday piece by Brookings scholar Ken Pollack — who endorsed Obama's strategy last fall but now thinks he's bungled the implementation — is a particularly crushing example of the problem:

By late 2014, the United States was already falling short. The Syria piece of the policy, both military and especially political, was going nowhere. In Iraq, the air campaign has been impressive, but hardly pervasive, let alone suffocating. The US is now retraining only a handful of Iraqi army brigades — 4-6 based on various accounts. The effort to train and arm Sunni fighters would be a joke were it not so lethally frustrating to the Sunnis themselves. The American advisory effort has been curtailed, kept to trainers and advisers at division level and above. No advisors accompanying Iraqi units in the field. No one to call in airstrikes. And there simply is no US-led political effort to bring about national reconciliation, which is not surprising given how senior Administration officials privately deride it.

The thing that's really devastating about Pollack's criticism is how level-headed it is. Unlike some sky-is-falling rhetoric you hear from Republicans and some pundits, Pollack isn't warning that ISIS is about to sweep the rest of Iraq. He recognizes, correctly, that ISIS taking over Ramadi (the provincial capital of the heavily Sunni Anbar province) wasn't about cowardly Iraqi fighters running from the battlefield. Rather, it was the result of a 16-month heavy ISIS siege against an under-resourced Iraqi contingent. "it is highly unlikely," Pollack writes, "that the fall of Ramadi will lead to massive additional gains by [ISIS]."

And yet Pollack still thinks the administration is bungling the job. That's because he sees a huge mismatch between the administration's stated goal — defeating ISIS — and the resources it's actually put out. Pollack believes Iraqi forces really could roll back ISIS. But without more aggressive American military aid, troop deployments, and political efforts to support the smart but beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, he thinks the campaign to root out ISIS will take too long, and will very likely fail to create a stable political solution that prevents Iraq from once again sliding into chaos and civil war.

In other words, Pollack thinks the administration's campaign is failing on its own terms, not on those set up by unrealistic or politically motivated critics.

This argument matters for two reasons. First, Pollack is right on certain points. For example, the US campaign to equip some Sunni fighters hasn't panned out very well. Sunni tribal militias were critical allies in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS's predecessor organization, during the 2007 surge. It's hard to see any kind of long-term solution to the threat ISIS typifies relying solely on Shia troops, given that ISIS is a Sunni organization and whatever popular support it commands comes from discontent with the Shia-dominated government.

Second, critics like Pollack are going to jack up the pressure on the administration to put American troops in harm's way. Pollack wants Obama to put American forces on the front lines to more accurately call in US airstrikes. He blames the administration's insistence "that not a single American be killed in this fight" for why this hasn't happened.

It's true that the administration has strongly resisted putting American troops in combat positions. That's because they're trying very hard to avoid slouching toward another Iraq war, with a large and growing US combat force that very well might do more harm than good. No combat troops is a red line designed to prevent that escalation.

But when sympathetic critics like Pollack — who, it should be noted, was one of the most influential advocates of invading Iraq in 2003 — turn on the administration, the heat on the administration increases. The foreign policy consensus in Washington is relatively hawkish, so problems with US interventions tend to be seen as problems resulting from not using enough force or committing enough resources. The more the elite consensus shifts against Obama, the more political pressure to escalate will mount. Obama probably will resist it, but the costs of doing so are going up — as Pollack's piece demonstrates.

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