There is a reason the American military asks of its civilian commanders, "Don't tell us what to do, tell us what you want done." Giving the military an executable military mission to accomplish is the most important responsibility of civilian command. A strategic plan helps the military respond quickly to the unintended consequences that result from every mission, without sliding into incremental and often unplanned escalation.
President Obama has dispatched up to 800 American soldiers and authorized more than 90 air strikes with a general idea of our "humanitarian" responsibilities, not our strategic interests. (That did not work too well in Libya.) Mr. Obama even characterized as "humanitarian" U.S. air support for Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi troops to prevent ISIS from controlling the Mosul Dam.
"If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would have threatened the lives of thousands of innocents and endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad," he said.
The President was dutifully echoed by Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, "The airstrikes that we conducted in and around Mosul Dam over the last 72 hours or so fit into both those categories, both helping prevent what could be a huge humanitarian problem should the dam be blown ... and also to protect U.S. personnel and facilities."
The Pentagon even changed its list of missions in Iraq to downplay the possibility of military action for strategic American aims. On 14 August, Kirby listed three missions: to protect American citizens and facilities; to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi forces as they battle ISIL (emphasis added); and to join with international partners to address the humanitarian crisis. A week later, only the protection and humanitarian missions remained.
Here is the problem: No one beats the U.S. for the timely and effective relief of a humanitarian crisis. From earthquakes to floods to tsunamis, the American military can dispatch more effective aid than anyone. But an earthquake has no retaliatory capability, ISIS does. Our current missions are taking place in a war zone and in a place the U.S. has strategic interests.
Here are the unintended consequences: 1) the beheading of James Foley with a similar threat to Steven Sotloff; 2) the movement of ISIS forces off the main roads into civilian towns and villages where the U.S. can strike only with great collateral damage (read: civilian casualties); and 3) the open ISIS threat to kill civilians in retaliation for further U.S. strikes in ISIS territory. Even though members of ISIS are conducting themselves gruesomely, blaming the U.S. will have resonance with some people in the region.
President Obama, in a formal statement on the murder of Foley, said that ISIS, "speaks for no religion. No faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or what they do every single day. We will do everything we can to protect our people and the timeless values they stand for. We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless ... to see that justice is done."
Secretary of State John Kerry followed the President with an equally harsh statement. "There is evil in this world, and we all have come face to face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil. ISIL is the face of that evil, a threat to people who want to live in peace, and an ugly insult to the peaceful religion they violate every day with their barbarity."
Both the President and Mr. Kerry took pains to sever ISIS from the religion of Islam. That is not an appropriate distinction for American political figures to make. Ours is a country that is secular in its governance and does not truck in "true religions" or parsing other people's religious beliefs. The organization speaks precisely in Islamic terms and holds itself out to be authentic Islam. Muslims themselves will either accept ISIS as part of their religious family or drum it out.
It is only possible for the United States to declare ISIS, whether part of Islam or not, to be an enemy organization to the United States and to declare our intention to destroy it. If the President now needs to recalibrate our military intervention in Iraq to include the decimation of ISIS, either his earlier promises of limitations will be broken or the chances of American success are slim to none.
The importance of a strategic plan BEFORE bombing people in another country becomes ever clearer.
Here is another unintended consequence, perhaps the only positive one to emerge: In the President and Secretary's words resides the basis for "recalibrating" on Hamas. They appear to have (belatedly) come to an understanding that the appropriate Western position toward unacceptably aggressive, "evil," behavior, is to not to negotiate with it, plead with it, "reform" it, or buy it off -- but to destroy it.
The terrorist group Hamas also massacres innocents. That Hamas cannot kill as many Israelis as it would like and cannot currently impose its version of Islam on West Bank Palestinians is irrelevant.
Spot the differences: Hamas or ISIS? Above, members of ISIS in Gaza. (Image source: ISIS YouTube video)
Most of the West ignored the child labor and the at least 160 children killed in the construction of the tunnels under Gaza, built to facilitate terror against Israeli innocents (as reported by the Institute for Palestine studies in 2012). Most of the West also ignore the Hamas rockets that fail to reach Israel and kill Palestinians in Gaza. But the goals of Hamas and the goals of ISIS, to create a society on its own principles -- "ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic and valueless evil," to quote Mr. Kerry -- are the same.
Israel and the United States and the rest of the West are, in fact, fighting the same intolerant, sadistic and unrepentant foe. The acknowledgment by the West would vastly enhance the chances of our success – that and a militarily achievable strategic plan.