The President’s Discomfort Zone


Vivek Shah

The War on Terror just doesn’t end. With ISIS grabbing recent media headlines as the face of global terrorism, President Obama has done exactly what every military advisor told him not to do: engaged ISIS, not with the intention of containing their rapid spread, but rather with the intent to “degrade and destroy” them.

In doing so, President Obama has backed himself into a corner once more, and highlighted his limitations and discomfort as a capable military leader. With adamant promises to the American public that no American troops would be placed in harm’s way, the President’s strategic options have been limited to well-placed missile strikes, air support, and leading a coalition of nations – mostly European – to counter the frightening pace at which ISIS has progressed across Syria and Iraq.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same logic that guided intervention in Libya and the latter portions of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, neither of which could be interpreted as successful operations.

That isn’t to say that air strikes aren’t a key aspect of the U.S. effort. ISIS represents a different brand of terrorism because much of its efforts have been self-financed. Rather than depending on the whims of state sponsors of terrorism, ISIS has embraced a more proactive approach. Taking advantage of the broken geopolitics of the region, ISIS has amassed control of large swaths of land (nearly the size of Belgium) and, more importantly, oil fields and infrastructure. Coupled with their rapid advances against the utterly inept Iraqi army, ISIS has transformed itself into an enterprise with control of nearly $2 billion dollars in assets. Strategic air strikes have been key to stemming future revenue from captured oil refineries, but are ultimately futile given the resources that ISIS already controls.

Herein lies the same conundrum that ultimately damned the President’s efforts in both Libya and Afghanistan. As is highlighted by the rapid takeover of large Iraqi cities such as Tikrit and Mosul, missile strikes and drones become more difficult to execute. With ISIS increasingly hunkering down in such larger cities, U.S. airstrikes are effectively rendered moot. However, as long as the President maintains that American troops not be placed back into conflict, he operates at the whims of the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, who are severely ill-trained and ill-equipped, to push back the battle-hardened forces of ISIS from these urban centers.

As President Obama pushes onward in combating ISIS – an organization, while oppressive, not a direct threat to American security – the ramifications of his most recent foreign policy gaffe become more evident. Rather than protecting U.S. interests, the President has become more intent on micromanaging the Middle East. With Syria, Afghanistan, and now Iraq, decisive and well-informed action has instead been sacrificed at every facet for unattainable goals and lukewarm attempts at mediating conflict. President Obama ascended to the White House on the promise of change. It remains to be seen if his miscues in the Middle East mean the President’s legacy become one of perpetual war.

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