In the beginning there was Operation Overlord. Then came Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Now the fight against the Islamic State has introduced a new concept into modern warfare. Call it Operation Whack-a-Mole.
“If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole,” the president said Monday afternoon at the end of a Pentagon news conference at which he gave an overview of developments in Syria and Iraq.
Obama had used the phrase before, but this was shock-and-awe-worthy — the commander in chief, in a rare visit to Defense Department headquarters, standing onstage with grim-faced and medal-festooned generals and likening war strategy to . . . an arcade game.
As a military matter, what Obama said was true: The United States can’t possibly fight terrorists by swinging a mallet at them wherever they show their heads. And yet that has, essentially, been the U.S. strategy in Syria and Iraq — fighting Islamic State militants with some 5,000 targeted airstrikes but doing very little to solve the overall threat. Technically, the Islamic State fight is called Operation Inherent Resolve — but “Whack-a-Mole” gets closer to reality.
Obama did little to punish the Syrian regime when it crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons. He made things worse for himself last month when, after a meeting in Europe with world leaders, he admitted that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the Islamic State. In fairness, Obama was talking specifically about the lack of commitments from the Iraqi army, but the nuance was lost, particularly because he had already confided nine months earlier that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for the Islamic State.
When the White House put out word that the president would make a rare visit to the Pentagon on Monday, press secretary Josh Earnest was quick to tamp down expectations of a grand new strategy.
“I would not anticipate any major announcements out of this meeting,” he said.
Obama, in the Pentagon briefing room after his session with the top brass, offered a bit of a pep talk, using another name for the Islamic State: “ISIL lost at the Mosul Dam. ISIL lost at Mount Sinjar. ISIL has lost repeatedly across Kirkuk province. ISIL lost at Tikrit. . . . ISIL lost at Kobani.”
Whack, whack, whack.
Obama did provide the outlines of a comprehensive strategy against the Islamic State. He acknowledged that there can be no solution without a new government in Syria, minus President Bashar al-Assad. He spoke of more support for anti-Islamic State forces. He spoke about the group’s threat metastasizing beyond the region.
But he said little about what he’ll do, specifically: Reengage with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to negotiate a solution to the Syrian civil war? Boost the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army? Establish safe zones in Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey?
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain fired off a statement saying that Obama’s comments “reveal the disturbing degree of self-delusion that characterizes the administration’s campaign against ISIL” and that “none of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success.”
Perhaps, but Obama deserves credit for talking about the necessary elements of a strategy and for ignoring the more extreme voices on the left that would have him retreat.
“What should we do if the Islamic State wins? Live with it,” was the headline atop Harvard professor Stephen Walt’s piece in Foreign Policy last month.
Walt argued that the attraction of jihadists to fight with the Islamic State “may even be a net gain” because they would be “isolated and contained in one spot instead of stirring up trouble at home.”
Walt suggested a policy of containment, trying to limit the Islamic State’s funds and the spread of its message while “patiently waiting for its excesses to undermine it within.”
Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas, a friend who is a Washington correspondent for the BBC, had a fine rejoinder to such naivete with her own piece in Foreign Policy this past week.
“If you’re hoping that over time the Islamic State will mellow and become an acceptable member of the system of nations, think again,” she wrote, noting that experiences with extreme movements in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan argue otherwise.
The sports-minded Obama spoke Monday of the danger of small-cell terrorist attacks inspired by the Islamic State: “We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks.”
Game on. But let’s stop playing whack-a-mole in Syria and Iraq.