It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.
In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:
- A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
- Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
- Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
- This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
- Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
- The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.