By Maxime Fischer-Zernin
On Thursday the U.S. Senate voted 78 to 22 to approve President Obama’s proposal to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels as part of the administration’s actions to combat the terrorist group often referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Senate vote follows Wednesday’s 273 to 156 House vote in favor of the measure. The high dissent in both votes, uncharacteristic in matters of military action or war, have highlighted the significant doubts many in both parties have regarding Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy, or lack thereof.
Almost three weeks ago, President Obama told the White House press corps that “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse… We don’t have a strategy yet.” As far as Presidential leadership goes, that just won’t cut it. While there has been progress in past weeks, such as the Congressional vote to fund the moderate Syrian opposition, the White House’s strategy remains in flux, a state of affairs that puts U.S. security at risk.
The split in this week’s votes is a fair reflection of public sentiment on the issue. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll conducted before the vote found that “62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against [ISIL] in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it,” but that “a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have very little or just some confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by [ISIL] will be achieved.”
The apparent disparity between the two figures in the poll as well as the split in Congress can be traced to this White House’s reluctance to exercise leadership on an issue that is treated more as a distraction than the pivotal conflict it is. President Obama’s plans to withdraw from military engagements in the Middle East and pivot towards Asia, inclinations that have even led to passive engagement in the Syrian Civil War, have been upset by ISIL’s rapid creation of a pseudo-state in Iraq and Syria that poses a direct threat to U.S. security.
David Brooks of the New York Times has labeled Obama a reluctant leader: “The defining characteristic of a reluctant leader is that he is self-divided. He feels compelled to do things he’d rather not do. This self-division can come in negative and positive forms… If he sticks to this self-assigned duty, and pursues it doggedly, he can be a successful reluctant leader. Sometimes the hardest victories are against yourself.”
Victory, however, requires a clearly stated end goal, which the administration still lacks. The military defines an end state as: “The set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander’s objectives.” The Obama administration has no end state, as demonstrated by the mismatch of talking points delivered by Pentagon and White House officials.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted: “We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests.” Last week, President Obama announced: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.” Then White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough stated: “Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise.”
The patchwork of executive actions, substituted for a defined end state, has already resulted in the early signs of mission creep. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this past week that if current measures are unsuccessful, he would recommend deploying ground forces to combat ISIL.
Such a recommendation would put the President’s top military advisor in direct opposition with the President’s promise not to put any American boots on the ground. In response to Dempsey’s comment, Obama reiterated that U.S. troops “do not and will not have a combat mission [in Iraq and Syria].”
General Dempsey added that he might recommend deploying Special Operations troops to provide “close combat advising,” such as targeting sites for air strikes. As the New York Times reports, “while the Americans would not fire weapons themselves, military experts said there was little practical distinction between the role General Dempsey described at the hearing and actual combat.” In the same report General Paul D. Eaton (ret.) explains that “we’ve already got ground forces introduced, and they are performing combat missions.”
Reluctant or not, as the U.S. increases its involvement in the fight against ISIL, the President must ensure that the White House and Pentagon speak with one voice when defining the threat posed by ISIL, the end goal for operations, and the exact scope such operations will take. Without presidential leadership and a clear end goal, the threat posed by ISIL risks escalating as the support for Obama’s decision in both Congress and the public continues to erode.