THE ‘BEST GAME IN TOWN’ – FIVE KEY RISKS OF THE PRESDIDENT’S STRATEGY
By Anthony H. Cordesman
11 Sep 14. It may seem unusual to criticize a strategy you have both suggested and endorse, and it is important to stress from the outset that President Obama has almost certainly chosen a strategy that is the “best game in town” — if he fully implements it, gives it the necessary resources, and sustains it over time. The President has had to choose a strategy based on the “rules of the game” in the United States, in Iraq, in Syria, and allied states. They are rules that place major constraints on what the United States can do.
The Limited Choices That Shape the “Best Game” in Town
The United States had no choice other than to depend on regional allies for ground forces, training, bases, improvements in unity and governance, efforts to limit the Islamic State’s funding and its volunteers, and efforts to highlight its lack of religious legitimacy and horrifying departures from Islam.
The United States has no domestic political support for deploying its own ground combat units. It would take months to deploy and organize a major land force presence to cover the large areas involved, and U.S. ground troops would walk into Iraqi and Syrian civil wars where they would almost inevitably be seen as favoring one side and being seen as an enemy by the other.
The strategy the President announced also has a good chance of meeting half of his goals: seriously degrading the Islamic State/ISIL/ISIS, and “degrade” may well be enough to destroy its ability to function as a protostate and secure base for violent Jihadism and extremism.
“Destroy,” however, is probably far too ambitious a goal. A serious threat of violent Jihadism and extremism is likely to endure for years to come, and reemerge along with similar threats in an arc that reaches from Morocco to the Philippines and from Sub-Saharan Africa to Russia and China. This may not be a “long war” in any one place, but outbreaks of violent instability seem likely to be the rule and not the exception.
Leadership Means Motivating and Motivating Means Understating Risks
This is not a criticism of what President Obama chose to say. A President who wants to lead and shape a course of action cannot and should not point out all of the risks in the strategy he chooses. As this President has taken some years to learn, you do not catalyze your own country or your allies by focusing on complexity and risks.
You do not overcome partisanship, extreme criticism, allied distrust, and hostile confidence by doing so. At the same time, there is a need for balance and for caution, and to endorse the President’s choice with an honest statement of the risks and uncertainties involved.
Key Risk One: Iraq
The first and potentially most serious set of such risks and uncertainties is one the President did touch upon. The strategy he proposed is dependent on Iraq having a government that actually seeks and achieves true functional unity between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites and Arabs and Kurds. The key ground force component in his strategy is a set of Iraqi forces where the United States can help recreate a functional and national Iraqi Army, limit and marginalize Shi’ite militias, create a Sunni national guard in Sunni-dominated areas, and make the peshmerga into a far more effective force.
However, sustaining and even achieving such Iraqi military progress requires far more national unity at the top. This means some new form of federalism, some degree of honesty and equity in using Iraq’s oil revenues, meaningful economic reform, and a major new approach to developing the nation’s petroleum sector. This is a one to three year effort for the military dimension and at least a three to five year effort for the political, governance, and solid start at the economic dimensions.
The chance of full success in Iraq probably less than one-in-three. As the failures after U.S. tactical success dur