Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Syria, a Test of Obama's 'Good Enough' Military Doctrine

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Syria, a Test of Obama's 'Good Enough' Military Doctrine

Article excerpt

The conflict against the Islamic State is casting Syria as the newest test of America's attempt to redefine what "winning" looks like in the war against terror.

The lesson from the long and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that the United States could approach "winning" only so long as it kept large numbers of forces on the ground. But maintaining those troop levels involved unsustainable costs - economically, politically, and militarily.

More recently, President Obama had tried walking away from the region, but in the face of a humanitarian crisis in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, that approach, too, proved unsustainable.

"For a while, the policy was 'Just Say No,' but they couldn't do it," says Stephen Biddle, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Now, Syria is emerging as a laboratory for a "good enough" approach in places where - as with the fight against the Islamic State - American interests are real but limited. The idea is to start small and build on what works.

Mr. Obama's goal is to turn the Islamic State campaign "over to the next president in a way that's sustainable," says Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015, and now senior adviser for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund.

The Islamic State, he says, will remain "a chronic problem, but is it a problem that we can live with for a while?"

If the answer is yes, that sort of sustainability may be what amounts to "winning" for the US in many of its foreign policy challenges, where the best path is one between full-scale war and doing nothing.

"They're trying to find out what this model is," says Paul Scharre, who worked as a policy adviser in the Pentagon from 2008 to 2013, "and come up with a new approach that we haven't had before."

- - - Soon after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the number of US troops on the ground in Syria would grow from 50 to 600, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona weighed in: This was "the kind of grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars, but could certainly lose one."

But behind the scenes in background briefings, Defense officials pushed back. The Pentagon's approach in Syria, put forward by Secretary Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, was not incrementalism, they argued, but rather a "step-by- step campaign."

"As we've pushed out and built on our successes, we're just reevaluating what different means we might need to take things to the next step," said a senior Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And that's where I think 'step-by-step' differs from 'incrementalism,' which carries a pejorative tone."

That may sound like a distinction without much of a difference, but for a Pentagon tasked with carving out achievable goals in a war where they have repeatedly proven elusive, the distinction is crucial. The approach is deliberate, not reactive.

"Every single time we've gone to the White House, we've gotten what we've asked for," the senior defense official noted.

From his years as a Pentagon technocrat, Carter is clearly aware of both the White House's marching orders and the Department of Defense's limitations. "The bottom line is this: We can't ignore this fight, but we also can't win it entirely from the outside in," he recently told lawmakers.

The approach involves changing the way the Pentagon - and America at large - has thought about war. The US military has long excelled at defining its objectives in negative terms, says Mr. Scharre, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Back in 2001, "We went in thinking, 'We don't want Saddam; we don't want Al Qaeda."

That has been the case with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) as well. "We want to defeat ISIS, but what comes in its place?"

And, when the US has figured that out, the question becomes how to make it sustainable. …

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