Today marks the 74th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack was designed to “shock and awe” an isolationist America into an early negotiated surrender after its Pacific Fleet battleships were sunk or put out of action by the Imperial Japanese Navy, giving Japan free license to expand its East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as far as it liked. But the outcome was not the one expected by the military dictatorship in Tokyo.
In fighting the Isis, President Barack Obama’s strategy has been roundly criticized from many directions. In reality, Mr. Obama is confusing the slogan “to disrupt and destroy” with a real strategy in which aims and means are closely aligned, coordinated and reinforce each other. In that regard, as the attack on Pearl Harbor failed to make the Pacific war very brief, so too will the Obama strategy fail to defeat IS on the current trajectory.
Instead of a viable strategy, the Obama plan is a series of tactical actions that, while seemingly sensible individually and in theory, are not coordinated with an overarching framework to ensure success. In World War II, that framework was to win in the Atlantic first; hold in the Pacific until more resources became available; and mobilize America’s “arsenal of democracy” to out produce and overwhelm the enemy with tanks, ships, planes, artillery and all the sinews of war in concert with dedicated allies including the Soviet Union.
Any war college graduate can easily draft three or four strategic constructs for defeating and destroying IS. First is a major ground and air offensive against the territories controlled and occupied by IS in Syria, Iraq and Libya if needed. To succeed, especially since the occupation in Syria could last decades in transitioning to some degree of order and stability, that force would have to be largely Arab and Sunni.
The second is a strategy of containment. The assumptions here are that fielding a sufficiently large ground force is impossible until the regional states actually regard IS as an existential threat and are prepared and willing to act accordingly. The current anti-IS coalition of 65 states would focus on stopping the flow of money and foreign fighters in and out of IS territory and taking on the responsibility of countering the IS propaganda and ideological messaging. Air and drone strikes would continue but on a lower level of effort as the aim is to contain with the expectation IS would ultimately implode.
A third strategy relies entirely on Iran and Russia to defeat IS in Syria and by default adapting as a sub-strategy elements of containment. Clearly, no guarantees would ensure either Russia and Iran would actually focus engagement on IS. Hence, a further sub-element must be convincing both that IS the principal enemy. And, of course, the downsides of expanding Russian and Iranian influence would have to be minimized, especially throughout the Gulf Cooperative Council where Iran is regarded as the existential threat, not IS. The corollary is a U.S. downsizing from this fight.
A further strategy that could be incorporated into the others is to create a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that, almost certainly, will be long-term. For those who think this is mission impossible, until 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, Saudi Arabia and Iran were part of the U.S. “Two Pillar” strategy in the Gulf. Both states viewed the Soviet Union as the greater, potentially existential threat. Indeed, the concept of a Sunni-Shia war was confined to a few academic historians of Islam and few non-Muslims were even aware of the two sects.
The Obama administration is trapped between Options I and II. It exercises the strongest rhetoric repeatedly acknowledging that IS can only be destroyed by ground forces. Yet, in practice, it does not follow through with sufficiently tough actions and emulates what can be best termed a Containment Plus approach.
As Japan could not change course after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Obama seems determined to make only minor tactical alterations to the rules of engagement for expanding air and drone strikes; adding handfuls of special forces for kill and capture missions; and increasing the intensity of air operations. But unless or until Iraqi ground forces can eject IS from Mosul, Ramadi and elsewhere and Kurdish forces assault and occupy Raqqa for the long-term, the best likely outcome is stalemate.
It is tragic that the inflexibility of the White House is matched by the absence of any better options offered by aspirants for the presidency from both parties.
By Dr. Harlan Ullman