THE BLOG
10/03/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2014

Amidst Claims of Intelligence Failure, Has Obama Found the Key to Defeating ISIS? (Or Is That an Illusory Goal?)

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA via Getty Images

Has the Obama administration at last found the key to defeating ISIS? The president promised as much after his long period of developing a strategy. But it's not at all clear that the administration's embattled national security apparatus has in fact identified the most important set of targets.

Let's get to that critical issue in a moment. Meanwhile, Obama has engaged in some finger-pointing suggesting that he and his advisers are the victim of an intelligence failure. To which intel types respond, not on your life.

This is the sort of he said/she said situation which can go on forever. And it's unnecessary, because we already have an answer. The principal problem here lies in the White House, in Obama's National Security Council, which either failed to develop an appropriate and, most importantly, timely response to ISIS, or failed to convince Obama to act.


In this jihadist-supplied video, a U.S. air strike takes out an ISIS artillery piece near what used to be the border between Iraq and Syria.

It was Obama who fecklessly dismissed ISIS as the "JV" (junior varsity) of jihadism earlier this year. Then, when its exploits broke through to the world media, he dawdled for months while trying to force a change in a Baghdad government fated to preside over the devolution of the old colonial construct of "Iraq" into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni portions.

With Bush-installed Nouri al-Maliki finally moved aside, it was then time for yet more Obama analysis of the situation, even as limited strikes -- primarily to back up the Kurds, likely the only pro-American ally in the future of that part of the Middle East -- were undertaken. Then it was time for still more delay in creating an overall strategy, as the administration turned to NATO for alliance-building.

All throughout this, ISIS was getting stronger.

Finally, after notoriously saying that his administration did not yet have a strategy, Obama unveiled his strategy. But it's really more of a process, and a hodgepodge of a process at that. Building a coalition, engaging in unspecified air strikes, advising troops of the Baghdad regime and Kurdistan, providing aid to "moderate" Syrian rebels.

And how is the Obama administration's new war in the Middle East going? Well, there are some Arab jets flying sorties. But it's not clear that the effort is more than the token which marked the Libya operation.

Obama has set a big goal in not only degrading and containing ISIS but in defeating it. To do that, the administration has to successfully engage its center of gravity, a term of art developed by the Prussian military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz in his classic work On War. U.S. military doctrine has since refined the concept of center of gravity as being the principal factor that stands in the way of the military's accomplishment of its own mission.

The mission here, as defined by the Obama administration, is not just degrading and containing ISIS, but defeating it.

What is the center of gravity for this 21st century hybrid outfit ISIS? Has the administration identified a center of gravity? And if so, is its assessment correct?

It's all more than a bit unclear, as you'll see.

The first phase of the U.S. air strikes has been effective. What is essentially a de facto Kurdistan, likely to be the only pro-American state in that part of the Middle East in coming years, was effectively relieved from some serious Isis pressure. Mosul Dam, Iraq's largest, was recaptured, with American air assets effectively coordinated with a ground assault by Kurdish forces. An essentially minor Isis move on the Kurdish capital Erbil was repulsed.

But that's about backstopping the Kurds and containing ISIS, not defeating ISIS.

Obama hasn't said how ISIS is to be defeated. What he's laid out is a process, not a strategy. Of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't lay out the strategic plan for winning World War II, either. But that was a different time. And he was FDR.

What appears to be the case is that the Obama administration decided to cut off the flow of income to ISIS from at least some of the oil and gas production it has seized. But is that really the center of gravity for ISIS? And couldn't this backfire?

ISIS has other sources of income. And there is a serious backfire factor involved.

It turns out that natural gas facilities attacked by U.S.-led air strikes are key in providing electricity to a big population.

When the U.S. knocked over Saddam's regime, it also largely destroyed Iraq's electric power infrastructure. Despite our years of self-proclaimed "nation-building" there in the aftermath of the invasion, the electricity infrastructure of Iraq was never really restored.

A powerful leader or command structure can constitute a center of gravity. That's why the Iraq War began with a decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein. That air strike failed, so Decapitation Plan B ensued with the ground invasion surging to Baghdad. That worked well. At least until the insurgency, that is.

The U.S. drive for Baghdad was, from a center of gravity standpoint, just like Nazi Germany's drive for Moscow in the early days of World War II. But the Russians, unlike the Iraqis, held, barely, forcing the Nazis to try for an economic center of gravity. Which also failed after more grinding years of war.

ISIS doesn't have a capital per se, and its leader is no bin Laden. Not that killing bin Laden stopped jihadism, of course.

And you'll note that these center of gravity efforts which do not involve killing specific leaders all involve boots on the ground, as experts say would be needed here. Lots and lots of boots on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Baghdad regime just lost another big base to Isis, with still more weapons. That's the sort of thing that U.S. air power should be able to prevent.

It may be that ISIS doesn't have a center of gravity, at least not in the traditional sense. This may be why Obama and company so seriously misjudged it. They apparently thought that defeating Al Qaeda Prime, the original force which attacked on 9/11, capped by the takedown of Osama bin Laden, ended the major jihadist terrorist threat.

But jihadism is an idea, a mindset, one distressingly appealing to large numbers of disaffected young Islamists looking for something to do. The techniques, like most of the tech, is downloadable. Weapons are readily available in a world awash in gun-running. Take these factors, then add to cash to chaos, and you've got a replicable template for ongoing potential disaster.

ISIS may just be the latest version of a virus which America just can't seem to solve.

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