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President Obama's New Islamic State Strategy Is an Evolutionary — Not Revolutionary — Change

A careful review of the President's speech suggests little will actually change in the way the US continues its fight against the militant group.

by Ryan Faith
Sep 11 2014, 10:00pm

Photo via VICE News

Last night, President Barack Obama made a rare primetime address on national television to talk about what the US is going to do about the Islamic State (or ISIL, as the President refers to the group).

A careful review of his speech netted a few important observations. Contrary to what many have been led to believe based on subsequent television and print coverage, the President did not ask the American people to whip themselves into a frenzy of partisan infighting.

Nope. All the talk about should, could, will, might, and the like was volunteered by the civic impulses of the more boisterous members of the political media. The chatter has been supplemented with scads of blithering, self-righteous posing, and concern-trolling across the internet, including a cacophony of commentary by the public.

All of which could leave a person wondering, "What the heck did the President actually say?" Well, you could watch it or read the transcript, but the bulk of what the President said isn't much of a departure from the counterterrorism tactics that have been employed throughout the Global War on Terror. Airstrikes on bad guys? Check. Equipping and training local fighters? Check. Diplomacy and alliances? Check. Intelligence and humanitarian aid? Check.

Obama tells the nation that America is going back to war in Iraq. Read more here.

In the very broadest of outlines, there's not much that will change between the way the US was fighting the Islamic State a month ago and what it will be doing a month from now. The biggest overall change is that wherever there was "some" before, there will now be "more." Some airstrikes will be replaced by more airstrikes. Some support for the Kurds will be replaced by more support for the Kurds.

There's one interesting aspect of the some-to-more plan that stands out, and that is Obama's pledge to "support Iraq's efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL's control." This may turn out to be a big deal.

Some countries in the Middle East have what amounts to two or more separate armies. While not always effective militarily, the arrangement can serve an important political function by counterbalancing competing factions. While the Iraqi Army was intended to be a unifying political force, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may have screwed up its development so badly that it will be impossible to fix in time to be useful for fighting the Islamic State.

The Sunni tribes to the west have their own homegrown armed forces of irregular infantry, which have been a sort of heavily armed swing vote in deciding who controls what in western Iraq. They are essentially a less-armed, less-organized version of what the Kurds have normalized into the peshmerga. The peshmerga haven't always been Islamic State-crushing studs, but they're at least competent enough for the US to believe that more training and guns (supplemented by airstrikes) will allow them to roll back the militants.

Turning Sunni tribal militias into a National Guard will help bring the Sunni tribes back into the fold — along with giving them a longterm hedge against a repeat of the abuses by the Iraqi Army under Maliki — and provide a structure for more formal training and supply. If this effort is truly successful, it will be key to pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq.

Obama also announced that the US will be more than happy to bomb the Islamic State in Syria regardless of what the Syrian government has to say about it. This shouldn't be taken as a gigantic tectonic shift; the raid to kill Osama bin Laden didn't involve any Pakistani permission.

Defeating the Islamic State is going to be kind of a pain. Read more here.

Another development also has to do with the Syrian civil war. Where the US had previously been giving the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — viewed as the good kind of Syrian rebels — some training, this strategy will be replaced with giving them more training. The big development here is that the Saudis have let it be known that they would be willing to host the training; previous efforts to train rebels found hosting issues to be a regular problem. 

In the longer run, the training partnership could mark a sort of Saudi entry into the same kind of behind-the-scenes shadow war that Iran has been waging for decades through proxies in the Middle East and beyond. In the shorter term, however, it opens the possibility that the FSA could get the kind of equipment and training — specifically how to fight effectively as larger units — that is a critical part of making them a credible fighting force.

But moving beyond the shift from some to more, there were other conceptual and framing details of Obama's speech that are worth noting.

The President slightly rolled back a premise that John Kerry had been tacitly pushing the last few days: a "global" coalition. In his speech and related remarks, he made clear that "global" doesn't include the Iranian or Syrian governments. This is probably just as well, because a truly global coalition would be a diplomatic monstrosity, too bloated and fragile to move or act.

The President also took issue with the Islamic State on some basic points of identity, asserting that they are neither Islamic nor a state. It's not particularly surprising that the US would refuse to legitimize the group by agreeing with its self-characterization on either front. Denying the legitimacy of the Islamic State as an actual state is fairly unsurprising, though there are subtle implications. If it actually begins acting as a nation and running its military as a conventional armed force, the US can take it apart with a wicked quickness. 

If the Pentagon can do nothing else well, it can smash a small Middle Eastern nation into splinters with relative ease. But allowing the militants to become established is not really a viable option.

Watch the entire VICE News documentary The Islamic State here.

The takeaway from these two points — that the Islamic State isn't a state and that defeating them will require only a coalition of the willing — along with the President's citing of Somalia and Yemen as positive examples, is encompassed in the word counterterrorism. The President will be determined to keep framing the fight against the Islamic State as counterterrorism rather than conventional war or counterinsurgency. Over the course of many years, this framing will be a point of engagement for US domestic political disputes. The choice of term feeds arguments that have fueled much of the rancorous debate since 9/11, and will set millions screaming about hypocrisy. But that's a future bushel of bullshit, and a silly source of venom that can be safely ignored for a while longer yet.

The President's announcement was a fairly straightforward expansion of what the US has been doing for a number of years around the Middle East and elsewhere during the Global War on Terror. There will of course be implementation risks and challenges, but this is an evolutionary — not revolutionary — change in approach. It will take several years to spool up and even longer to show dramatic results, but, really, it's just some more of the same.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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