A full-blooded war in its early stages is now underway, involving two antagonists, the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known to his followers as Caliph Ibrahim, and the United States of America, led by President Barack Obama. The former, creator of the world's first Islamic caliphate in nearly a century, is strong-willed, determined, persistent and utterly ruthless. The latter, by contrast, is a reluctant warrior, tentative, incoherent in his understanding and articulation of the threat posed by his nemesis, and prone to missteps. It is the distinction in the capacities of these two leaders far more than the relative military potential of the two opposing actors that will determine the outcome of this potentially epochal struggle. The present trajectory revealed in the leadership style and substance of the President leads me to a pessimistic assessment of this evolving military conflict. The following comprises my diagnosis of why President Obama is leading the United States towards a potentially cataclysmic outcome for his nation:
1. President Obama has consistently underestimated--and misunderstood-- his opponent. Hubris is one of the most fatal afflictions that can undermine a national leader engaged in a great struggle. Unfortunately, Obama has time and again demonstrated an inability to accurately gauge his opponent's capacity. The intelligence failures and abject unwillingness to comprehend the emerging threat posed by al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State by the President are already well recognized, such as his reference in January 2014 to the Islamic State as a "JV team." Recent formulations by the President display continued misconceptions regarding the leader of the Islamic State.
In a nationally televised statement made by President Obama on September 10, 2014 he said, "ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents." Considering that neither the President nor his principal national security advisors are practicing Muslims, while Abu Bakr a-Baghdadi holds two advanced degrees in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad, including a PhD, it is an astonishing display of naiveté for America's Commander-in-Chief to engage in a contest on the relative expertise of the two leaders in the field of Islamic jurisprudence and Koranic exegesis. The brutal truth is that the Caliph of the Islamic State has the credentials and expert knowledge to base all of his military decisions on Islamic principles, and that is a defining strength of al-Baghdadi that enables him to inspire his followers to a fanatical religious devotion. The President's ill-founded characterizations reveals a lack of ability to comprehend the glue that binds together the military prowess that defines the Islamic State. Furthermore, history repeatedly reveals that religion (and rigid secular ideologies)--not only Islam, but all three monotheistic faith traditions--have scriptures and theological precepts that can and have been used to justify the slaying of non-combatants.
By attempting to turn the conflict that has been initiated by the Islamic State into a contest in defining the true nature of Islam, President Obama arouses contempt and ridicule from the enemy while achieving nothing on the battlefield.
2. The Commander-in-Chief is attempting to wage war on the cheap. One gets the impression that President Obama believes he can determine the course of a military conflict by edict. For example, he can decide to withdraw troops from one operational theatre, and declare no ground forces will be deployed to another arena, as though politically-determined polices are a substitute for careful, long-term strategic and operational decision-making. Clearly, Obama hopes to contain the Islamic State through airpower and drones, primarily American but supposedly involving a large coalition of allies.
If massive aerial bombing and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops could not defeat the Vietcong during the Vietnam war, what historical parallels is the President turning towards to instill confidence that airpower alone will bring the forces of the caliphate to their knees? As for the military contribution by several NATO and Arab allies, the miniscule number of combat aircraft being offered by these nations is irrelevance in the broader context of the struggle. The farcical nature of this contribution was illustrated by the British Ministry of Defense highlighting the deployment of a mere two aircraft and their subsequent destruction of a single Islamic State Toyota pickup truck as a major "triumph" on the battlefield.
To date, America's leader and his key allies are thinking small and short-term, while the looming struggle will be massive and enduring. Conducting this warfare through minimalist means will only guarantee a far lengthier and costly struggle with the forces of the Islamic State.
3. President Obama lacks a grand strategic vision for confronting the Islamic State. The President's external priorities have been all over the map, diluting the ability of the U.S. to comprehensively and effectively confront the challenge being posed by the Islamic State. While al-Baghdadi was building up strength, training his cadres and formulating his strategy, America's foreign policy and national security agenda has been globally dispersed. Obama and his key advisors, in particular John Kerry, were simultaneously retreating from the Middle East while seeking to have the other anti-American Islamic theocracy in the region, Iran, serve as a substitute for protecting U.S. regional interest through concessions on the nuclear issue; devoting massive allocations of time and effort towards "resolving" the Palestinian-Israeli issue when all the known facts indicated that this was at present a fool's errand that was also a marginal factor in the continuing disarray in the region; pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific region in a manner that signaled that China, America's principal financial creditor, was being viewed as a future threat; and restarting the Cold War with Russia through miscalculations and ill-advised intervention in the political turmoil in Ukraine.
If the Islamic State was an insignificant threat, perhaps the United States would have the luxury of engaging in multilateral policy endeavors that would add to Washington's list of adversaries and estranged allies. However, in the kind of contest of wills that the Caliph has unleashed, I don't think a wise policymaker would characterize the threat being posed as insubstantial. That being the case, a more coherent presidency would be focused on defeating the threat, and building the alliances that would maximize the ability to crush the Islamic State. Russia and China are both viewed as enemies by the Islamic State, along with the United States. Obama should be reaching out to Moscow and Beijing as potential and powerful allies in the war against the Islamic State, rather than engaging in policies that create tension in the relationship with these two counties, while diverting attention and resources away from the confrontation with the Islamic State.
4. Thus far, the President does not appear to fully recognize the nature and scope of the threat being posed to America by al-Baghdadi and his army. In essence, everything that President Obama has said and every decision he has made in connection with the Islamic State reveals that Obama views it as a phenomenon in continuity with the general "War on Terror," which actually began prior to September 11, 2001. The very conceptualization labeled as the "War on Terror" betrays the strategic disconnect and intellectual vacuum within the decision-making apparatus in Washington. Terror, per se, is a tactical means employed by a hostile entity, and not the entity itself. Obama apparently sees the conflict as one involving a confrontation with "terrorists" as opposed to a structured entity, the Islamic State, with an army, battlefield commanders, an effective military staff and strong leadership. Furthermore, this structured entity is clearly at war with the United States, and there is no ambiguity or lack of clarity by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his leadership regarding their intentions towards the United States. This is made clear in a propaganda film released by the Islamic State, "Flames of War," which concludes with a message from the Caliph aimed directly at the American people:
"Finally, this is a message we direct to America. Know, O defender of the cross, that a proxy war won't help you in Sham [Syria] just as it didn't help you in Iraq. As for the near future, you will be forced into a direct confrontation, with Allah's permission, despite your reluctance. And the sons of Islam have prepared for this day, so wait and see, for we too are also going to wait and see." (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XZ3ovDxhw4&bpctr=1412479968)
The Islamic State wants the United States to once again deploy a large field army in the heart of the Arab world, and will seek to provoke President Obama to undertake what his enemy knows he is reluctant to do. How will they achieve their objective? In all probability, by launching a massive attack on American soil, at the level of September 11, 2001, at a minimum. And why do they seek the return of large ground forces from the U.S. to the Middle East? In the short term, this will aid in their recruitment. Long term, the leadership of IS are convinced that they can wear down the U.S. Army in grinding battles of attrition in urban combat, in the process crippling America militarily and economically.
A President who truly understood the threat facing the nation would not be expending time on the golf course or fundraising expeditions; he would be devoting every waking moment he has available in defending the United States from perhaps its most dangerous enemy since the Second World War.