National Security & Defense

Fighting to Not Win

Operation Inherent Resolve flight operations aboard USS Carl Vinson. (Photo: US Navy)
How Obama’s strategy builds up the Islamic State and fosters terrorism

President Obama is officially at war with the Islamic State, yet he is not fighting to win. He is fighting to contain it and “degrade” it over a period of years. Practically speaking, this means: helping the Islamic State develop itself at home, and helping it inspire more terrorists worldwide — something the terrorists have brought home to country after country in recent weeks. Obama’s strategy is barely different from fighting to lose.

As long as the Islamic State is fighting America without losing — as long as it continues to control a large swath of territory — its roots deepen at home and its charisma grows among Muslims everywhere. Here finally is an Islamic entity that is able to fight “the Empire” and succeed in holding it off! It attracts adherents from a global base — a base of many thousand aspiring jihadists and many million supportive Islamists.

The U.S. has announced that it has killed a thousand Islamic State fighters — this, in all these months of containing and “degrading.” Meanwhile, by conservative counts, the Islamic State has recruited more than twice that number of additional fighters. Leftists argue that we are building up the IS by fighting it, so stop fighting. They would be right, if they put it this way: We are building it up by fighting pro forma without trying to win.

Do Obama’s hands have the blood of Paris on them? Not in the straight-line sense in which he and other anti-police agitators fostered the motivation for the killing of the New York City policemen. But in an indirect sense, yes. It is not an ordinary passable mistake when Obama makes “war” in a manner uniquely designed to protract the enemy’s control of territory. This strategy guarantees the multiplication of IS-inspired terrorists. It bears co-responsibility for the blood they spill.


“But what in the world would ‘wining’ mean?” — administration people have been asking, as if it were a devastating putdown. “You’re so simplistic. Hitting the Islamic State militarily can’t destroy it. Its people will scatter and carry on elsewhere. And you can’t kill an idea, like Islamism. This can only be a many-year effort.” This has become the line of media sophists as well as administration officials. Their sarcasm is misplaced. It is a silly rationalization for a dangerous policy.

The answer is simple. Winning has a clear meaning:

1. It means, in the initial stage, destroying the Islamic State as an entity that controls territory, and doing it fast, in weeks or months, not years.

2. It means, beyond that, fighting to try to win the much longer campaigns, by capturing or killing IS fighters who try to disperse, and by waging political and ideological war against Islamism.

“Winning” requires a more approximate definition in these longer campaigns. But the definition is meaningful enough, for those who honestly wish to win.

The capturing or killing of IS fighters is really a continuation of the struggle against the global terrorist movement initiated by al-Qaeda. “Winning” means reducing that movement to one that is marginal in its membership, its terrorist actions, and its resonance in the Islamic world. This will take years.

Waging the political and ideological war will take more years. It will require avoiding more of the pretend winning of the administration, which tried to proclaim victory by treating the not-actively-terrorist Muslim Brotherhood as being on our side and helping it come to power in Egypt and elsewhere. It will require allying with our real allies. President el-Sisi of Egypt has stated that Islam must overcome its own texts that have made it a source of terror to the world. That would be winning. He is an ally. The administration has been against him. Why?


There is always a dirty secret behind those who deny that “winning” has a meaning: They don’t really want to win.

That was true also during the Cold War. There was the same litany of denials that “winning” could be defined, and of assertions that you can’t defeat an idea, etc. etc. The current litany is a direct inheritance, coming from the same circles. The deniers had a better case back then: There was no way we could eliminate Communism territorially by military force once it had nuclear weapons. Many of them also had a clear motive back then: They partly agreed with the Communist idea and were afraid of its being reduced to insignificance. They wanted the Cold War to end through an ideological compromise between Communism and “capitalism.” (I put it in quotation marks because it is an unscientific term. As a label for the market system, it was invented by Marxists, and is used by them to brand the marketing system in advance as a mere tool of the interests of the capitalist class.)

Today’s anti-anti-Islamists have no interest in an ideological compromise with Islam. But many of them do share another motive from the Cold War Left: They don’t want a global balance that is more fully on the Western side. They berate the rest of us for recognizing an enemy as an enemy, but then, they wouldn’t want us to fight the enemy too successfully; many of them are not really against having enemies, and positively want us to have a strong enemy. It gives them a balancer to play off against us. And they believe that a balance against us is desperately needed. They think of our power as terribly oppressive to the world, and to themselves individually, as heroic dissidents. Many ideological “realists” and libertarians share their perverse preference for America’s having enemies for balance against ourselves; they support the most terrible tyrannies in the name of liberty, as they argue that a global balance of opposing powers makes for freedom, and that our domestic liberties are always on the edge of final destruction and will be lost if we fight our enemies. In the real world, our liberties have grown stronger and deeper no matter what wars we have fought, with slavery ending, women being enfranchised, and civil liberties expanding. Even temporary wartime infringements on liberties grew fewer as the long-term secular trend from the Revolution to today; and liberty throughout the world has spread as the enemies of the West were defeated. The opposition to winning is not for sound reasons; it comes from a deep subculture of animosity to our power.

James Burnham answered the glib opponents of winning half a century ago. He defined “winning” as the reduction of Communism to a marginal force. He proposed policies to achieve this. A disciple of his, Ronald Reagan, became president. He pursued the struggle with the goal of winning. Gorbachev came to power and brought Communism to a peaceful end.

Fortunately, the Left wasn’t against Gorbachev, the way it is against Sisi. Fortunately, most Americans, today as in the 1980s, are free of the perverse elite aversion to winning. A new Reagan could yet get elected — a person of good judgment, a person not afraid of common sense.


Destroying the Islamic State’s control of territory could easily be done in a matter of weeks. It took eight weeks to end the Taliban’s control in the vast and rough terrain in Afghanistan. It took three weeks to end Saddam’s control in Iraq. Both of these were regimes that were far more deeply entrenched than the Islamic State. Both controlled territory that was larger than the Islamic State’s.

Winning is eminently doable. Obama chooses not to do it.

He seems uneasy with the idea of a victory won by the American military, or openly led by it. He is comfortable sending in air strikes defensively, to protect potential new victims. Offensive use of Western military force, however, feels too much like “imperialism”; and imperialism — Western imperialism — is the most terrible thing you can be accused of among Obama’s base. It is the ultimate taboo.

The sophists are right about one thing: that we did a poor job of follow-up in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, for the first couple of years, we failed to do almost any follow-up at all, making it much harder when we started trying later. But that does not mean that “winning” is undefinable. The sophists don’t seem to realize the obvious: that the follow-up conflicts would have been many times worse if we had not won the initial military sweep; if instead we had fought it in stalemate, dragging full-fledged warfare on for years instead of wrapping it up in weeks.

The media and the administration are similarly wrong on the ideological war. They invoke it only to oppose military victory. They have not fought this longer war themselves, except when they have been fighting on the other side — talking up Islam, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, smearing its critics as “Islamophobes,” helping Islamists come to power in Middle Eastern countries, slackening the anti-terrorism defenses in the West.

Why in fact has there been this vast differential in results — fast and complete territorial victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, a long territorial stalemate-war with the Islamic State?

Islamists will inevitably think it is because of the Islamist State’s faith.

The normal social-science method of answering the question would be to start by comparing the American policies in these instances. Three differences are obvious:

1. American military power was brought seriously to bear in the previous wars. It is being restricted in the present case to a few dozen sorties at a time — what leftists deplored as a “phony war” in the last war that they genuinely wanted to fight and win, World War II.

2. In Afghanistan, America used a significant number of its own forces, and chose, after a brief hesitation, an ally on the ground — the Northern Alliance — that was serious militarily, and that was, partly for that reason, disapproved by our elites. In Iraq, America used its own forces. In today’s war, America is doing the opposite. It is drawing meaningful red lines solely against its own side — against using our own “boots,” and against choosing clearly either of the two serious allies available, Turkey or Syria. This leaves it with only ineffective, dissident-type, elite-approved allies.

3. The Bush administration wanted to win militarily. It had no embarrassment about the idea. It was proud of winning.

That would suffice to explain the facts and avoid the false Islamist conclusions — if most people were scientific. But they are not. They are not ready to make the mental effort to think of this careful comparison; not, at least, without being given prompting and informational help.

They are getting no prompting or relevant information from Obama or the media. Just the opposite: the “information” they are given supports an Islamist conclusion. The administration tells them that America is at war but is incapable of smashing the Islamic State in any meaningful time frame. They accept this falsehood as a fact, since “even the Americans say it.” They contrast it to the way they remember America quickly smashing its earlier targets. They draw the terrible, logical conclusion: that what is saving the Islamic State is the power of its Islamic faith. And why should Islamists not draw this conclusion, when they are fed the requisite premises for it by our own government?

The conclusion would seem simply logical for an Islamist: There must be something special about the Islamic State that is enabling it to hold off America, “the Empire,” in a way that previous Muslim states never could. And what is this “something special”? It has the power of God behind it. It is the real Islamic state. It is “our state.”

This conclusion inspires a meaningful fraction of Muslims around the world to want to “get real” — to work and fight for the Islamic State. By traveling to live in its territory, by wreaking terror at home, and often both.

Let us examine the Islamist logic on this, to see whether there are any holes in it:

Major premise: Islamism. “Islam is the solution.” The solution to what problems? To all problems. Particularly to the problem of Islamic civilization’s loss of global leadership to the religiously backward West in the 1500s, its subordination to the West in the 1800s, and the ending of the caliphate in the 1900s.

Minor premise: the “facts,” as presented by the administration and the Western media:

“Fact” 1: America is at war with the Islamic State.

“Fact” 2: America “knows” that it “cannot” destroy the Islamic State and end its control of territory for years to come.

Fact 3 (this one alone is an actual fact): In the objectively more difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it took America far less time to destroy the entirety of the enemy regime’s control over territory — three weeks to two months.

It would require a huge effort, after this, to avoid making the deductions we dread:

Deduction 1: The Islamic State is more powerful in practice than the previous Muslim states, despite being far less powerful materially, because it more truly and passionately believes in Islam.

Deduction 2: The Islamic State is the true Muslim state. It is, for Muslims, “our state.”

Can we refute this strict logic? The premises are what is faulty in this Islamist syllogism, not the deductions from them. The deductions can be refuted only by changing the premises:

1. Taking on the major premise, Islamism, with ideological and political war. This will require recognizing who the enemy is and who our allies are, instead of getting it inside-out as the Obama administration and Western elites have usually done.

2. Falsifying the “factual” premises, by smashing the Islamic State quickly — destroying it as a territorial entity in a matter of weeks, and ceasing to prevaricate about how we “cannot” win.

This in turn means:

a. Bringing full Western air power to bear, not just a token level of air strikes.

b. Choosing a strong local ally on the ground, instead of sitting on the fence between local forces. This comes down to choosing either Turkey or Syria, since the two are incompatible, and coordinating our air power with the one we choose.

c. Using an adequate number of our own forces on the ground, preferably only needing special forces because of having chosen a serious local ally.


The Islamic State is fighting for real. The Islamists abroad who join it or support it with terrorist acts have gotten real. It is time for the West to get real.

Every week we continue not to get real, there are more jihadists preparing and carrying out more terrorist acts with more victims, from Paris to Pakistan.

Trotsky said that, in war, maximum humanity means maximum efficiency. It is not a profound observation. It is not even always true. Some parties are condemned by objective realities to lose. But when one holds the preponderance of force, it is elementary good sense.

It was inhumane to drag out the intervention in Libya, in the name of not owning the victory (yes, that was our explicit line), and it was ruinous for regional stability. It has been brutal and ruinous to keep propping up the civil war in Syria just to the point of stalemate, with hundreds of thousands dead and the Islamic State emerging out of the chaos. Dragging on the current war with the Islamic State in stalemate format spills barrels of innocent blood.

The administration feels uncomfortable with the moral responsibility of fighting a war to win. Even when facing an enemy so horrendous that it really would rather see a world without that enemy, it doesn’t want us to own the victory. That, after all, would shift the global balance in our favor, not manage our decline the way the Left wants us to.

But Obama does not escape moral responsibility by his avoidance of victory. Failure to choose is also a choice. The more Obama runs away from responsibility, the more blood there is on his hands.

The bulk of the world is ready to get real in fighting Islamism and terrorism. It must find the means to move forward, even if Obama continues standing in the way.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.


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