Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence


The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."

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Robert H. Miller

Excellent overview, Steve. One distinction I haven't heard made but which I think is important in understanding our enemies is the fundamental difference between Al Qaeda and Isis:

Al Qaeda's objectives were primarily political. Isis' objectives, on the other hand, are primarily religious. Solutions for the former can be envisaged, while solutions for the latter imply nothing short of annihilation.


The Arabs are after us because over the years we have meddled in their countries, their affairs -- economically, forcefully, violently. That they are able to muster their current level of group fervor because they happen to have a (for the time being) more fundamentalist religious tradition than we do, is merely bad luck for us.

No one here has recently suggested that some of the insurgent groups' motive might be to simply get control of the oil for themselves. When someone does suggest it, then we can talk about THAT. Until then, see par. 1.

Scott Robinson

Dear Steve,

A good critique of the non-strategy of Obama. I think the flatulence reference is good because it means that diplomacy stinks. I think of it with the catchphrase that, "Talk is cheap". Diplomacy is based on the legitimate threat of force. Look at the non-eruption of World War III between the US and the USSR.
As far as Iran getting a nuclear weapon, I think that for Iran, it's the only sensible thing for them to do. Evidence is in Lybia. Moammar Gaddafi gives up his pursuit of nuclear weapons, and gets rewarded with being deposed and executed by tribal rebels with the air-strikes courtesy of the Arab coalition and the U.S. (you can decide which one did the most). When hearing Benjamin Netanyahu's speech last night, all I could think of is, Israel has about 300 nuclear weapons. If Iran is the mortal enemy of Israel and devoted to its destruction, why doesn't Israel make like the U.S. did with Japan and give Iran its nuclear weapons?

Good Quote,

Luther Jett

"Israel has about 300 nuclear weapons"

Although I think the question of how many nukes Israel has might be less than relevant to the topic of Mr. Murphy's article, it's hard for me to let an unsupported assertion like this pass without asking for the source of that number (given that neither Israel nor the US government will confirm or deny that Israel has any nukes at all).

Scott Robinson

Dear Luther,

My comment that Israel has about 300 nuclear weapons comes from me quoting a talking head on one of the cable news channels. As I said in my comment, "talk is cheap", I should pay more heed to what I said. I did look for actual reference afterwards and found that according to Wikipedia, Israel neither confirms or denies that it has nuclear weapons. So the number I list is just based on hearsay. This is a pathetic excuse, but I grabbed hold of this hearsay for the melodramatic factor. I should verify my statements before I state them.

Thank You,

Wayland Hunter

I am a persistent critic of Obama. I can’t imagine a critique that would do him justice. But what was the problem with Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq? Precisely that the United States attempted to destroy an authoritarian regime and produced (briefly, thank God, in Egypt) a crazed ideological Islamic regime. Now we want more intervention?

Steve Murphy

Sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that Obama wants more itervention. He may want more; he may want less; I don't know. If I knew what he wanted, the essay would have been much shorter (e.g., I would not have had to write the first three paragraphs). All that is clear is that he is unclear, to a fault. His Middle East policy is a case study in confusion. Obama tells us not to worry and Kerry tells us that we have never beeen safer, while the Director of National Intelligence tells us that 2014 was the most lethal year for Islamic terrorism in almost 50 years and the Director of the FBI tells us that Islamic terrorist threats are being investigated in all 50 states.

There is no clear strategy to achieve anything (other than to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which is a goal not a strategy), and his actions seem to invite more intervention. For example, the centerpiece of his ISIS strategy is the bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq. But the entire area under bombardment is inhabited by Sunni Arab Muslims; each bomb dropped is an ISIS recruiting vehicle, orders of magnitude greater in effectiveness than anything imagined by Obama of Gitmo. It only helps Persian Shiite Muslims. As a result, Iraqi Sunnis join ISIS by the thousands and volunteers from all over the world pour into ISIS-occupied territory — which is expanding (now into Libya) even as Obama sends more US boots-on-the-ground, increasingly violating Kerry's red line.

I can sympathize with Obama (and anyone else dealing with the violent morass of Islamic extremism), but everything he has done (the withdrawal from Iraq, the leading from behind in Libya, the redline in Syria, the light footprint, etc.) has not only not worked, it has made things worse — for both the US and the Muslim World, especially the Sunni component.

I also don't know what the US strategy should be. But

1) I'm pretty sure that any deal that Iran agrees to will be bad for US interests and, even if it somehow causes Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, it won't extricate the US from Middle East turmoil.

2) I am 100% certain that, in the broader war against terrorism (which Obama now refers to as violent extremism), tweeting community organizers are going to get their asses kicked — in a stark defeat that will be almost as humiliating as having a president with the credulity to advance such a preposterous scheme in the first place.

Thanks for your interest,

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