Obama's Unnecessary, Unpromising War

We don't know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State.


ISIS flag
Wikimedia Commons

President Barack Obama said Wednesday night the United States is going to war "to degrade and ultimately destroy" the group known as the Islamic State.

So right off you know one thing we will not do: destroy it. The only thing more reliable than the habit of American presidents of starting wars is the inability of wartime presidents to achieve their goals.

President George W. Bush went into Afghanistan pledging to wipe out al-Qaida and the Taliban. He invaded Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, while promising that the creation of "free Iraq" would be "a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Nice try. The Taliban is alive and well in Afghanistan, and there is no end in sight in our fight against al-Qaida groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Hussein had no WMDs for us to find. Iraq is embroiled in a sectarian conflict that has done nothing to spread democracy—but did cause the turmoil that gave rise to the Islamic State.

Obama launched an air war in Libya because, he said, allowing Moammar Gadhafi to stay in power would foster "chaos and lawlessness" and create "a new safe haven for extremists." Today, the Associated Press reports, Libya is "further crumbling into a failed state," and Obama's State Department lists the country as—yep—"a terrorist safe haven."

The trusted formula for business success is "underpromise, overdeliver." American presidents make a practice of raising expectations they can't meet.

This is another unnecessary war against an overblown foe. "ISIS has no ability to attack inside the United States, American and allied security officials say, and it is not clear to intelligence officials that the group even wants to," The New York Times reported after the president's speech.

Obama seems to think we can decimate the Islamic State and empower the people of Iraq and Syria through missiles and bombs. But where does he get this unshakable faith in air power?

We have been vaporizing al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan for years, and the organization still has a solid presence there. We're not exactly winning hearts and minds, either: A 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that three out of four Pakistanis regard the United States as their enemy.

Obama claims to be relying on a tried-and-true approach. "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," he said.

Pursued? Yes. Successfully? Not so much. Reports The Washington Post, "None of those groups has been eradicated, or even degraded to a degree that would allow U.S. counterterrorism operations to end."

In June, a damning report came from a panel of experts commissioned by the Stimson Center in Washington and chaired by retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"The Obama administration's heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of U.S. counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts," it concluded. Meanwhile, "Islamic extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader area of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia."

How can all our efforts yield such dismal results? It's called "blowback." The task force noted that even small numbers of civilian fatalities "can anger whole communities, increase anti-U.S. sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations."

The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars. It did so in the 1991 Iraq war, the 1999 Kosovo war and the 1989 invasion of Panama. In each case, we had a well-defined adversary in the form of a government, a limited goal and a clear path to the exit.

We generally fail, though, when we undertake open-ended efforts to stamp out radical insurgents in societies alien to ours. We lack the knowledge, the resources, the compelling interest and the staying power to vanquish those groups.

The Islamic State is vulnerable to its local enemies—which include nearly every country in the region. But that doesn't mean it can be destroyed by us. In fact, it stands to benefit from one thing at which both Obama and Bush have proved adept: creating enemies faster than we can kill them.

We don't know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State. So chances are we'll have to settle for the other kind.

NEXT: Brickbat: In the Dark

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  1. The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars

    I don’t not get what you’re saying there

    1. Don’t not try harder.

      1. “Make no mistake…”

    2. The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars

      I don’t not get what you’re saying there

      Translation: “These were the wars I liked”

        1. Dafuk?!?!


          1. Outside of the flyweight division…

    3. When we conduct war without looking to go the ‘nation building – so that they love us phase’ we win. WWII was the last time we did this. The idea of nation building was part of the cold war rebuild of Europe and Japan, and our part in that was far less than the ‘nation builder crowd’ would have us think.

      Also, it only works when there is an even scarier bogey man on the other side of the border – in that case, the CCCP – in which to keep the masses happy about you occupying their country.

      Frankly, we just need to bring everyone home. Fuck the world. They are not willing to defend themselves, then why the hell are we doing it. The euro-trash needs to deal with Ivan. The Arabs need to deal with ISIS. Why do we care?

      In short – war is about beating the shit out of the other guy to the point where he can no longer fuck with you. It is not about making friends out of your enemies because you bloodied their nose.

      1. RJ The Terrible

        Why the term “euro-trash”?

        1. Probably because they’ve basically outsourced their defense responsibilities inside Europe to us and expect us to ride to the rescue every time they have a problem on which they don’t wish to spend their own money.

          Robert Gates made a speech to some of their generals about that, shortly before he left the SECDEF position…he avoided the terms euro-trash or welfare leech, but I think the sentiment was about the same.

      2. “The Arabs need to deal with ISIS. Why do we care?”

        This is a thorny issue and there is much you say that I sympathize with. But i don’t think simply leaving it in regional hands is an answer. First, the Iranians are not Arabs. Neither are the Kurds. ISIS’s neighbours may despise and fear them, but without leadership they are not going to work together to overthrow ISIS. The US is the natural leader for such a coalition, the only nation capable of bringing the KSA and Iran together.

        1. The US is the natural leader to do a lot of things; that doesn’t mean it is in our interest to actually do them. Let Europe take care of its own backyard.

      3. “The euro-trash needs to deal with Ivan.”
        The 28 member countries of the EU, with a total population and economy larger than that of the USA and a level of education far above that of the average American, thank you for that further proof of why the USA is over the cliff.

        1. Ah, another illustration of the wide gap between European delusions of grandeur and European reality.

        2. Yet I lived in France for over a year and went to school with late 20 and early 30 year old French students taking 7-10 years to finish a 5 year degree program. I guess you can take your time when you have free education. I guess you can judge how lazy and stupid Americans are when they have saved your life numerous times and are the only reason the Eiffel Tower has not been blown to pieces.

          It’s like my stats professor said, “statistics are worthless because nobody ever uses them, or uses them honestly, and this semester we will learn Statistics.”

  2. We don’t know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State.

    Yes, we do. It’s called engulfing Syria and Iraq in nuclear fire until it resembles a real-life game of Fallout: New Vegas. What you meant to write was, “We don’t know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State within modern-day ethical restrictions.” And I’ll admit that when one side isn’t interested at all in following the “rules of war”, it makes it impossible.

    1. “when one side isn’t interested at all in following the “rules of war””

      It’s not torture, it’s enhanced iterrogation. It’s not bombing civilians, it’s “processing a target.”

  3. In fact, it stands to benefit from one thing at which both Obama and Bush have proved adept: creating enemies faster than we can kill them.

    But, but, but… They hate us for our freedom! Our setting up puppet governments, occupying their land, and killing their people has nothing to do with it! Blowback is a myth! They’d hate us anyway because of our freedom! John said so!

    1. You just went full Chapman. And there’s no edit button for your comment.


  4. If thousands of ISIL/ISIS came across our southern border, and we shot them on sight, would be treated as heroes for participating in Obama’s war on ISIS or arrested for “hate crimes” against poor illegal immigrants just looking for a better live? which just happens to include killing all non-Muslims?

    1. If there were fair laws you’d be shot for libel.

      1. Against whome? Obama, Illegal immigrants or ISIS?

  5. Roll that beautiful bean footage.

  6. War? What War?

    “I am all peace; But when I speak, they are for war.” -Psalms 20:7

    Violating admonitions by the Founding Fathers, the USA has been pursuing a policy best labeled “Pax Americana”.

    “The Congress shall have the Power … To declare War …. .”-United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11

    A congressional resolution is not a declaration of war. It confers nothing but legislative ambiguity leading to executive tyranny.

    “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme.” -The Recital (The Koran), The Spoils 8:36

    The so-called War On Terror really is a war against Mohammedans; most recently, re-ignited by Bush the First [ (See “Categories/Foreign Relations/’Did Bush Burn The Koran?'”)].

    How many wars is the USA, as a nation, to fight concurrently? The Mohammedans against us “infidels”? The list continues . . . .

    Perhaps, it’s time to demand declarations of war as prescribed by the Constitution. Perhaps, it’s time to fight to win. Perhaps, it’s time to worry less about civilians who support the enemy and more about our own troops in combat. Perhaps, it’s time for a return to the Constitution and traditional American ideals and values; perhaps, it’s time to let the Scientific Method be the guide to foreign policy … things that neither Democratic nor Republican politicians are likely to give us … ever. Perhaps, it’s time for a new political party.

  7. If something like this was happening here and Britain bombed the shit out of our cities to wipe out the “enemy,” then you can be damned sure that we would hate Britain eventually.

    We just need to stop.

    1. What do you mean, “something like this”? If Islamist extremists were mowing down men and burying them in mass graves, forcing women into sexual slavery, stealing natural resources and military-grade weapons and ammo, while our military ran away and some portion of the population went along enthusiastically? I myself might hope for a well-placed bomb or two. By “well-placed,” I admittedly mean “not aimed at anyplace I happen to be.”

      1. You are kidding about the “stealing natural resources” part, aren’t you? You do see the irony, don’t you?

  8. To better understand the premise of this article, it would help to read “Endless Enemies, The Making of An Unfriendly World” by the last Jonathan Kwitny.

    As far as wars against the Islamic State are concerned, the only really successful war in history (to date) against such a state, was when the Spanish finally kicked the Muslims out of Spain in 1492, the same year as Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, and that was accomplished only after 800 years of almost constant war.

  9. Correction. My previous comment should read “the LATE Jonathan Kwitny”

    1. And you skipped over “The Battle of Vienna” on September the 11th, 1683.

      1. Dear OneOut,

        I did NOT “skip” over the important Battle/Siege of Vienna during which Grand Vizier (spelling?) Kara Mustapha and his Ottoman Turkish Army were defeated mainly by King John Sobieski III of Poland in 1683. This kept the Turks out of the rest of Europe until the end of the Ottoman Empire during World War One.

        The conquest of what is now Spain by Muslim Arab Armies in the early 8th Century AD, resulted in 800 years of War between Christians and Muslims on that Peninsula. (A bit longer than Vienna 1683), in what is called the Reconquista.

        I hope this answers you concerns about my “skipping” over the Battle of Vienna. I believe there is now a recent movie about the Battle of Vienna.

        You have a nice day.

        1. The Battle of Vienna returns 14,400,000 results in 0.39 seconds. You don’t seriously think that anyone believes you just pulled “King John Sobieski III of Poland in 1683” out of your head, do you?

          1. Anon E. Mouse,

            Hi there Ass Hole. Yes, I did “pull it out of my head” you piece of undereducated shit. The reason I pulled it out of my head you bastard, is because I used to teach European History in College before I retired. So why don’t you shove your remarks up your rectum. Fuck you, you son of a bitch!

            Any more of you fucking comments, I will be ready for them, you little shit hole. I used to have ass holes in my classes who forgot to write down John Sobieski III’s name when I was lecturing about him, and the siege of Vienna, and consequently they flunked the final examination anyway.

            So you need to pull your head out of your rectum before you assume that everyone has to look up everything on the fucking ass internet and never read a book or two, or three.

            Fuck you, you little mother fucker. Fuck you!!!

          2. Anon E. Mouse,

            In the future when I see you around on this site I have decided to call you scrotum brain.

            Fuck you again, you little fucking asshole!

            1. Don’t forget to take your meds, Walter Mitty.

              1. Hi There Anus Mouse,

                You are typical of the many fucking morons who post on this site. You never have anything substantial to say. All you are capable of is finding someone to mock.

                Yes, I know who Walter Mitty is. He’s a dreamer, but my comments were not those of a dreamer. All you did was single me out because I mentioned an historical personage, and being so stupid yourself, you figured that no one could know about John Sobieski without looking him up on Wiki Pee Pee.

                Fuck you and all those of your ilk forever. Fuck you!

  10. Hi steve,

    Not to be pedantic but I missed the part where Obama called this campaign against Isis a “war?”

    I’m very suspicious of the use of military power and have virulently and consistently opposed most of America’s wars (most of which have been started by Republicans) but I like to make judge a military action on its merits. I’m not quite a pacifist.

    It’s unusual for me to be advocating a particular military campaign because usually I’m opposed, but I can see the merits of a limited bombing campaign against Islamic fundamentalism and can certainly draw a distinction between this campaign and the one waged by his predecessor in Iraq.

    1. “most of which have been started by Republicans”

      Except, of course, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the little sideshows in Somalia and the Balkans.

      Other than that, most of them have been started by Republicans.

      1. Sorry, I meant to say “most of which have been started *in my lifetime*” I’m 40ish. Fair?

        1. Oh, so you want to cherry-pick from the small slice of time in which most of the data that contradicts your argument is excluded.

          Democrats are the party that’s started most of our wars. And the Democrats in Congress enthusiastically supported both Bushes when they started theirs. So your argument is utterly without merit.

          1. “Oh, so you want to cherry-pick from the small slice of time in which most of the data that contradicts your argument is excluded.”

            I choose who I vote for on the present state of political affairs — not the actions of James Polk.

            “Democrats are the party that’s started most of our wars. And the Democrats in Congress enthusiastically supported both Bushes when they started theirs.”

            A majority of Democrats voted against the AUMF in Iraq back in 2002. Look it up. There were brave members of congress who stood up against the war machine, ( but they get no love from Reason mag. I wonder why that is.

        2. God bless those brave Democrats that stood up to the nasty Republicans.

          Shame you don’t have principles in your 40s. Then you could say: “I didn’t like Bush’s war in Iraq then and I don’t like Obama’s now.”

          My point will probably be lost on you. Continue to think bombing people will stop terrorism.

      2. I thought the Civil War was started by a Republican named Abe Lincoln.

        1. Depends on how you interpret everybody’s rights. The first actual attack was made by the Confederacy at Ft. Sumter on the Union troops who were still stationed there after the secession.

    2. Despite your protestations to the contrary, you are just an ideological hack. You assume that “most” wars were started by Republicans, and you accept that one started by a Democrat must be have “merit” because of your affinity to the Democratic party and its intentions. There is nothing thoughtful about your analysis, and nothing “pedantic” because your position is determined by the party of the president involved.

    3. “Bombing the crap out of people in another country isn’t a war because my buddy president said it isn’t.”

      Jesus Christ, you’re almost as vile and pathetic as Weigel is.

    4. American what?

    5. I see. It’s not a “war war”, it’s more like an “enhanced peace mission”, right?

  11. Tell Sunni/Shia/Kurd/Yazidis/Shabkas/Turkmen to take their share of land from IRAQ and go build their OWN nation

  12. Why are skeptics about this war/whatever so allergic to stating the core underlying FACT about ISIL here?

    ISIL is not some indigenous group of locals who are engaging in whatever shit they are engaging in for local reasons that has nothing to do with us. They are overwhelmingly foreign jihadis (at least 10% of whom are European/American) – who turned into jihadis in their home country and who then travelled (thank you open borders) to that part of the world in order to do their shit. The analogy is not the Taliban or anything else. The analogy is a bunch of nutjob Junior Year Abroad students who go abroad, proclaim their own state, and start executing/slaughtering everyone they see who doesn’t like it.

    These folks ARE going to come back ‘home’ eventually. That’s here. And they ain’t going to be peaceful and well-adjusted when they do return. They are going to be murderous SOB’s until they die. There is no negotiating with them. No arguing/reasoning with them. No possibility that they are just gonna grow out of a ‘phase’.

    I honestly don’t know how to deal with this. But I do know that anyone who is incapable of mentioning the most salient facts about this is also incapable of rendering any policy advice that is worth listening to.

  13. my friend’s step-aunt makes $66 /hr on the laptop . She has been without a job for ten months but last month her check was $15584 just working on the laptop for a few hours. pop over to this site….


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