Obama and the Islamic State: Seven Myths about the American Strategy

The American president unveiled his action plan against the Islamic State on Wednesday. The following is an overview of the issues raised by this decisive event occurring at the end of Obama’s term.

President Barack Obama presented his “action plan” on Wednesday, Sept. 10 against the so-called Islamic State, an armed, radical and extremist group responsible for beheading two American journalists and one British aid worker in recent weeks, and whose military progress in Iraq worries Western diplomats. The following article presents an overview of the issues that concern the U.S. administration.

1. Obama is unpopular because of the Islamic State and Syria.

Here’s why this is false, but maybe not for long ….

According to Pew, an independent and authoritative public opinion research center, Obama’s approval rating has changed very little over the course of this year: Currently, 42 percent of Americans approve of his job performance and 50 percent disapprove. The reasons behind their disillusionment are linked to the economy (persistent long-term unemployment, stagnant wages) and the conflict between political institutions, even though this is not Obama’s fault.

It should be noted, however, that there has been an increase in the number of Americans who think that the president’s foreign policy is “not tough enough”: 54 percent think this, an increase of 13 percent over the last two years. Due to the Islamic State’s rapid military progression and the killing of Americans, it has clearly become the new public enemy No. 1: According to 67 percent of those surveyed, the Islamic State now represents a “major threat” to the United States.

2. It’s always the same hawks.

Here’s why this is false.

It’s true that many Republicans are calling for stronger military involvement in Syria and Iraq. Robert Kagan, a neocon who supported the invasion in Iraq, wrote a long article last June in which he formulated a theory and criticized Obama’s foreign policy, calling it a “search for normalcy.”

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, remarked that many Iraq War supporters have not reacted this time: “We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11 … ISIS is awful, but it is not a threat to America’s homeland.” In Iraq and Syria, he continued, “there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.”

3. The end result will be that American soldiers will be deployed.

Here’s why it’s unlikely.

We saw it with Vietnam: It all started with “military advisers,” then special forces and finally, not so special soldiers … and then one day the country woke up and realized it was the occupier. It’s always the same story. The Islamic State hopes the decapitation of the American journalists will provoke Washington into going down the same road.

Except that the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are still fresh in everyone’s minds. According to a recent survey carried out by Reuters/Ipsos, only 4 percent of Americans are in favor of sending American troops to Syria. That isn’t all: Six Americans out of 10 feel that the United States should not intervene in the Syrian civil war, 47 percent are against sending arms to the rebels and 46 percent are opposed to an American military intervention even if chemical weapons are used.

4. For Washington, the Islamic State is the new al-Qaida.

Here’s why this is false.

It’s true that the organization’s rapid military progression took the United States and its allies by surprise. It’s clear that Obama himself has underestimated the new threat for some time now: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president recently acknowledged that his mocking quote wasn’t appropriate … According to American public opinion, the decapitations were so shocking that the Islamic State was abruptly cast as the planet’s new “bad guy.” For Washington, however, it was the near capture of Erbil and, above all, the threat that the Islamic State could capture the Haditha Dam — which would have potentially disastrous consequences — that led to a reassessment of the threat posed by [the group].

The U.S. Secret Service still refuses, however, to lump the Islamic State and al-Qaida together: The Islamic State’s number one goal remains the creation of an Islamic caliphate, while for al-Qaida this remains a distant goal — they prefer to focus on [perpetrating] terrorist acts.

5. The organization’s official name doesn’t matter.

Here’s why this is false.

The American press uses the name ISIS to designate the Islamic State, although the administration continues to use the acronym ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The reason behind this is that Iraq is the only country where the United States resorted to using airstrikes, and the administration prefers to refer to the Levant, which encompasses Syria as well as Lebanon and Jordan. Now that Obama has authorized air strikes for Syria, perhaps the administration will begin to use the acronym ISIS. It is doubtful, however, that Obama will start to call the organization by the name ISIS gave itself in June: IS (Islamic State). For Washington this would be akin to legitimizing the organization’s existence.

6. Pakistan and the Islamic State have the same strategy.

Here’s why this is false, although the administration feeds the confusion.

“This is not the equivalent of the Iraq War. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years,” stated the president in a recent interview, alluding to the drone strikes in Pakistan.

In reality, as The New York Times remarks, “the military campaign Mr. Obama is preparing has no obvious precedent. Unlike American counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan, it is not expected to be limited to drone strikes against militant leaders.”

We are actually talking about the first “air war,” led by an allied coalition against an organization that controls a vast stretch of land without a well-identified central power or leadership. In other words, this is a leap into the unknown, which worries many advisers.

7. Obama’s “We don’t have a strategy yet” blunder was no big deal.

Here’s why this is false.

These little words that slipped out during a digression at a press conference were a bombshell. The meaning behind what he said is not really false, as the microcosm knows that no Western country has found the winning formula for defeating the Islamic State. There is a rule in American presidential politics, however, that can never be broken: Never admit your weaknesses or those of your country. America’s DNA doesn’t allow this. Thirty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter made this unfortunate mistake ….

In a nutshell, Obama was successful in his feat to unite the Republicans — against him — over foreign policy. They criticize his weak leadership and his indecision, and in reality they are greatly divided between isolationism and interventionism. Well done, Mr. President!

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