President Barack Obama is set to lay out in a speech tonight his "game plan" for an expanded assault on the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. He is expected to explain how the ongoing airstrike campaign against the group in Iraq will be expanded with international support, and reports suggest that he will advocate for a long-term commitment against the group, which has killed thousands in the region and caused alarm in America by executing two U.S. journalists.
But experts warn the White House must offer more than a just a battle plan: It should make a case for a broader military campaign that can survive rigorous questioning, so we can be sure it won't simply exacerbate regional instability the way previous U.S. intervention has done. And as the campaign against the Islamic State eventually extends into Syria -- something administration aides say it must do to target the heart of the group -- Obama will be involving America's military in a conflict in which actors from across the region are using their armed proxies to fight for diverse interests.
So the administration needs to prove that its approach won't be reactive or short-sighted. Here are some of the most important questions White House advisers, and the nation on whose behalf they could soon launch more missiles, should be considering ahead of Obama's speech:
Does the Islamic State threaten Americans at home?
We're still not sure about this -- and the administration seems to have its own doubts. Despite Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's assertion in August that the Islamic State is "an imminent threat to every interest we have," National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen said as recently as last week that the most the Islamic State is capable of doing to the U.S. is launching a plan "limited in scope … nothing like a 9/11 scale attack." The administration certainly must do everything it can to defend Americans against any potential attack. But the White House has yet to be clear on the exact way in which the Islamic State could harm Americans at home. As it explains this, it should remember what Dave Weigel points out at Slate: It's easy to overrate an enemy. Do we really know what kind of threat the Islamic State poses, and are we reacting in proportion to it?
In an interview with Dan Froomkin for The Intercept, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor pointed out that the group's success in capturing territory is not proof of its strength, but of the weakness of local governments. It's obvious, then, that the Islamic State threatens fragile states like Jordan and Lebanon -- but far less clear that it poses a risk to a global superpower thousands of miles and an ocean away.
So why do we care? To former CIA Middle East analyst Paul Pillar, writing in the National Interest, the national discussion about the Islamic State seems fueled less by actual concern than by how the group makes America feel. Are we expanding the attack because we are worried, or because, having seen some of our own citizens suffer, we are angry? Is fury enough to justify ever-increasing U.S. action -- and if it is, do we really want to demonstrate as much to other, smaller jihadi groups looking to prove themselves by forcing America's hand?
U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff (center), the second of two Americans beheaded by the Islamic State this summer. (Getty Images)
To what extent does the Islamic State threaten U.S. interests abroad, and can we defend them?
It's unclear that America's regional allies are on the same page regarding the threat ISIS poses. Jordan, a potentially threatened nation with ties to Washington, arrested some domestic Islamist activists last week and may be concerned behind closed doors -- but there is debate there over whether the battle against ISIS is really Jordan's war. Meanwhile, Israel is sharing its intelligence with the U.S. but overtly has done little more than declare the group illegal -- possibly because it believes the group has not prioritized attacking Israel. The administration's case must make sense of these mixed signals: Does Obama really believe ISIS could harm our partners?
And even if U.S. sources indicate there is a strong threat to regional order, why should we believe that further American-led action there will do anything to preserve it? After a decade of ambitious U.S. nation-building, extremist groups like the Islamic State are thriving in the Middle East. Will this intervention really be different? And if so, in what specific ways?
If the administration tries to convince Americans that airstrikes in Syria stem from a U.S. interest in protecting the region's residents, it will face skepticism. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has massacred tens of thousands of his own people while facing minimal consequences. If Obama believes he once again has the kind of "responsibility to protect" argument used as a basis for action in Libya in 2011, how will he explain his choice not to act when faced with suffering in Syria over the past three and a half years?
A wounded Syrian boy cries as he receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma near Damascus on Sept. 3, after reported shelling by Syrian government forces that killed five people and wounded 30. (Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images)
How will the campaign work?
Obama said Sunday that he envisions a continued airstrike campaign to support Iraqi and Kurdish troops. That leaves the world unsure about who will own this assault. Will it be a U.S. responsibility, or one entrusted to local partners? As Zack Beauchamp notes at Vox, "there's a risk that the U.S. is sending mixed messages to the Iraqis and Syrians. The more America talks about wanting to destroy ISIS, the more Iraqis and Syrians think the U.S. might be planning to take the military and political lead." The White House faces a struggle here: It wants to take the lead in countering a threat it paints as critical, while ensuring local actors are invested in the campaign.
And those local actors have their own prejudices and ambitions. Reuters reports that anti-Islamic State fighters in Iraq, who are Kurdish or Shiite, are already making life difficult for Sunni refugees. Who will hold Kurdish peshmerga commanders and others accountable, and how can we be sure that their actions -- or the favors we may concede to win their support -- will not clash with U.S. interests and policy in the region?
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
How will the campaign affect the power structure in the Middle East?
Iraq war critic and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich told HuffPost last week that the debate (or lack thereof) around attacking the Islamic State has missed the point: "It seems unlikely that U.S. military action, even if assisted by surrogates on the ground, can 'kill' ISIS. At best, we will be able to significantly reduce its capabilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but then what?" His question resonates beyond the territory we're presumably helping to snatch back from the Islamic State. Does the White House have a strategy for how ramped-up U.S. intervention would fit into the broader power struggle in the Middle East?
The big-picture problem is the fractured nature of Middle Eastern politics. Factions in various countries are fighting for Sunni or Shiite dominance, backed by Sunni and Shiite regional powers (notably Saudi Arabia and Iran). As it seeks to undermine the Islamic State, the White House wants to win over Sunnis who see ISIS as an effective opponent against Shiite-dominated governments. But why should these Sunnis believe the U.S. will guarantee them future political representation? Sunni leaders already are wary of American promises after suffering in Iraq under U.S.-approved Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki.
Again, this comes down to promises: Who are we helping to empower in the region? While the White House might rally Shiites and Sunnis against the Islamic State temporarily, who will it eventually let down? Attacking ISIS would indirectly help Syria's Shiite-backed regime -- is America willing to frustrate Sunnis further by doing so?
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (center) during a meeting of foreign ministers at the headquarters of the Arab League in the Egyptian capital Cairo on Sept. 7. Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called for a military and political confrontation with Islamic State jihadists and other militants he said threatened the existence of Arab states. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
What would 'winning' look like here?
Here's the larger question: Is the U.S. willing to commit to a long-term plan to ease tension on either side of the Syria-Iraq border? Airstrikes with some local support -- the policy Obama referred to Sunday when talking about counterterrorism efforts over the past few years -- have not destroyed the Pakistani Taliban or left us with a functional Libya. Perhaps a deeper U.S. engagement could have done that. But this isn't what the president says he's requesting. Counterterrorism researcher Brian Fishman warns the administration and its critics that they need to be clearer about what the U.S. wants to do to the Islamic State -- and to the region:
Advocating the defeat of ISIL over the short-term without acknowledging what will be necessary to achieve that end is a recipe for mission creep. This is the most important strategic lesson from Iraq: Don’t bullshit the American people into a war with shifting objectives (even if those goals are important) because they will not put up with that commitment long enough for those goals to be achieved. This is not a call for pacifism; it is a call for fighting to win, which requires sustained commitment, which requires forthrightness in our discourse about whether to choose war. We should only fight if we are fighting to win.
Is the White House trying to "win" by building a Middle East that does not produce and harbor groups like the Islamic State? Does it have a plan to do this?
George W. Bush was long plagued by his early declaration that he'd accomplished his mission in Iraq. Seen here is a sign protesters brought to the White House in 2008. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
How much would it cost to 'win'?
With the broadening of the U.S. effort, logistics are key. What will this mission end up costing the American taxpayer? The current campaign against the Islamic State already requires $225 million a month. That number is set to rise, but do we want it to?
The "we" here is especially important. Does the desire for higher spending come from strategists looking to accomplish a long-term strategic goal or hawks with an inherent love of, and interest in, military expenditure? And will that money get us the world we want or just fuel more eventual trouble?
Smoke rises during airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants at the Mosul Dam outside Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 18. (AP Photo)
Could U.S. military intervention actually strengthen the Islamic State?
If the U.S. ends up responding to an overblown threat assessment, it could actually make the Islamic State more powerful. In effect, Obama may be giving the extremists the attention they crave -- and setting us up for a longer headache.
Matthew Hoh at the Center for International Policy made this point on HuffPost this week, noting an infamous boast Osama bin Laden made about his ability to draw disproportionate U.S. responses -- and cause disproportionate U.S. pain -- with even the most meager al Qaeda advance:
In our rush to return to war in Iraq we are playing into the Islamic State's hands, just as we played into the hands of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and into Osama bin Laden's larger strategy with our morally disastrous Global War on Terror, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
And a New Republic piece from this summer notes that given the competition for supremacy among extremist groups, "a massive invasion by the United States …[could] instantly convert [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi’s squalid army into the world’s premier terrorist organization." Is Obama willing to face the risk that military action could give the Islamic State a boost in its effort to displace al Qaeda in the pursuit of allies, recruits, funding and high-profile successes -- and to help ISIS become a more resilient, long-lasting threat?
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State's self-appointed caliph, shown in a screenshot from a video released by militants. (AP Photo)
Can we ever defeat a problem rooted in complex, longstanding frustrations?
This is a question that predates the Obama administration, but it goes to the core assumptions of our current military plan and has implications beyond American involvement in an ongoing sectarian war. No airstrike can destroy the twisted logic that sustains groups like the Islamic State.
Islamic extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere see the U.S. as incapable of making a moral case against violent jihad: While beheadings are awful, their logic goes, so too was Abu Ghraib. So while the vast majority of Muslims do not want to live under gruesome Sharia law or be represented by a self-appointed caliph, thousands seem ready to tolerate the group as an actor fighting what they see as an unfair status quo. Those numbers include Syrians exhausted from civil war and disillusioned with an uncaring world, and the oft-mentioned Western-born fighters seeking glory or a sense of community they cannot find at home.
What the White House should be looking to answer, then, is a question posed by former ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr.: "Is there any non-coercive program to counter the ideological appeal of ISIS?"
The State Department's Think Again Turn Away Twitter account tries to do this by using Islamic State hashtags to send out messages touting U.S. success or undercutting Islamic State accomplishments. For a longterm strategy and investment to reap a reward, simply reacting to new threats will never be enough. What else could the U.S. and its regional partners be doing?
Iraqi security forces hold a flag of the Islamic State group they captured during an operation outside Amirli, about 105 miles north of Baghdad on Sept. 1. (AP Photo)
Given that it is gambling with America's money and global stature, not to mention hundreds of thousands of lives, the White House should be fully aware of what the long campaign against the Islamic State might entail. Come Wednesday night, the president will have a chance to answer the difficult questions listed above -- and to convince the world that his plan accounts for them.