President Obama’s ISIS “Strategy”: Too Little and Way Too Late


Skip Ash

November 2, 2015

7 min read

Middle East



President Obama has promised the American people since 2013 that he would not introduce U.S. ground forces into Syria. This past week, he broke that promise. The President announced that he has decided to send “less than 50” Special Operations personnel to Syria. To quote the late great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, this seems like “déjà vu all over again.” History does indeed appear to repeat itself. An American President is once again personally directing defense policy in a way that appears destined to fail.

During the Vietnam War, for example, President Lyndon Johnson famously boasted that U.S. forces “can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.” LBJ was referring to the fact that he had retained and exercised from the White House absolute authority to approve all bombing targets in North Vietnam.

True, as Commander-in-Chief, LBJ possessed the constitutional authority to do as he did, but, given what actually transpired in the Vietnam War, it appears that LBJ’s policy was not a wise policy. First, LBJ was not a military expert; despite his remarkable political skills, he was a rank amateur in military matters. Second, he failed to recognize that one simply cannot make meaningful targeting decisions when one is located thousands and thousands of miles away from an active battlefield in a distant time zone.

Military professionals on the ground in the area of conflict are in the best position to make such decisions. Situations change rapidly on the battlefield. Targets of opportunity come and go quickly. That’s why we maintain a well-trained, well-educated professional military force. That’s why we establish military headquarters in the region where the fighting takes place. That’s also why Presidents of the United States do not don military uniforms and head to the battlefield to take command each time American forces are sent into harm’s way—even though they have the legal right to do so.

Following the Vietnam debacle, where political neophytes frequently overruled the reasoned judgments of professional military leaders, up-and-coming military leaders like Colin Powell developed a series of principles, now commonly referred to as the “Powell Doctrine,” to be considered before U.S. forces should be sent into harm’s way. These common-sense principles should be understood by every American, but especially by the political leaders of our Nation who bear the heavy responsibility of sending members of our Armed Forces into life and death situations.

Among these common sense principles, General Powell noted the following:

When President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address he compared the Civil War to the scourge of God, visited upon the nation to compensate for what the nation had visited upon its slaves. Lincoln perceived war correctly. It is the scourge of God. We should be very careful how we use it. When we do use it, we should not be equivocal: we should win and win decisively.

Does President Obama’s sending “fewer than 50” Special Operations personnel into Syria indicate that he intends to “win and win decisively”? I think not. Grudging incrementalism doesn’t cut it when one claims that one’s mission is to ultimately defeat ISIS. Strike One.
General Powell also cited President Reagan’s dispatch of Marines to Lebanon in 1983 as an example of when and how not to use the Armed Forces of the United States:

When the political objective is important, clearly defined and understood, when the risks are acceptable, and when the use of force can be effectively combined with diplomatic and economic policies, then clear and unambiguous objectives must be given to the armed forces. These objectives must be firmly linked with the political objectives. We must not . . . send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish—such as we did when we sent the U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983.

General Powell noted further regarding Lebanon: “We inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five-faction civil war complete with terrorists, hostage-takers, and a dozen spies in every camp . . . .” Before deciding to send the “fewer than 50” soldiers to Syria, did anyone in the President’s entourage seriously consider what’s happening in Syria today? Strike Two.

If you ask me, the situation in Syria today is considerably more confused than Lebanon was in 1983. The Syrian civil war today includes, in addition to Syrian combat forces still loyal to the Assad regime, a whole host of anti-Assad Sunni Arab militias (even some associated with our old friend, al-Qaeda), more secular anti-Assad Arab militias, anti-Assad Kurdish militias, ISIS, pro-Assad forces from the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, pro-Assad Iranian ground forces, pro-Assad (and, nominally, anti-ISIS) Russian forces, as well as the anti-ISIS air forces of the United States and the coalition of Arab states. Moreover, the Syrian civil war has also included the use of WMDs against Assad’s enemies. In truth, the situation in Syria is the very definition of chaos.

It is becoming clear to all but the most obtuse observers that President Obama and his advisors have no clue what to do about Syria. When the President might have been able to make a difference in Syria, he hesitated. When his hesitation led to increased chaos, the red lines he announced were crossed with impunity, and the Syrian civil war began to spin out of control, he tried something different: appeasing our enemies and entering into an irresponsible treaty with state sponsor of terrorism Iran in the clearly mistaken hope that the Iranians would change their behavior and act civilly in the neighborhood (if one listens closely, one can hear the echo of Neville Chamberlain proclaiming he had achieved “peace in our time”). One of the lessons I learned early on as a Second Lieutenant was that “‘hope’ is not a plan.” Would that our President and his Secretary of State had learned that fundamental truth.

Now that we are at a point where the President can accomplish virtually nothing in Syria, he nonetheless decides to introduce a tiny number of personnel to help train and advise “friendly groups” on the ground. Does anyone else see the utter futility of such a deployment? Strike Three.

What are the President’s goals? What does he hope to accomplish? Increasingly, it appears that he desires simply not to lose the fight against ISIS during the remainder of his term in office, when defeating ISIS should be the goal. By doing what he is doing, the President is placing American soldiers in a situation where they might be attacked from the air by Russian bombers and/or be captured on the ground by fundamentalist Muslim terrorists associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS. By doing what he is doing, the President appears to be willing to risk the lives of the soldiers he is sending to fight for a cause he is not willing to win. That’s tantamount to a betrayal of trust for the soldiers he commands. Mr. President, the lives of our soldiers’ matter!

President Obama has squandered U.S. influence in the region to the point that our friends don’t trust us, our enemies don’t fear us, and the Russians feel free to fill the political vacuum he created by blatantly moving forces into the region and telling us to clear the skies for Russian air attacks. In response to this disastrous situation, the President has decided to send “fewer than 50” Special Operations personnel into Syria to train indigenous forces to fight against ISIS. Incredible!

In my view, this is nothing more than another sick joke played by an inept Administration made up of military know nothings. Once again, military professionals are putting their lives on the line for an Administration run by incompetents, and, sad to say, it ain’t pretty.