How Wide Does President Obama’s “Range of Options” on the Islamic State Extend?

The United States would be better off ceding leadership in halting the Islamic State to another country. (Photo: Ottoman Imperial Archive / Flickr)

The United States would be better off ceding leadership in halting the Islamic State to another country. (Photo: Ottoman Imperial Archive / Flickr)

President Obama has assigned Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey the task of preparing a “range of options,” as he said in a press conference, for dealing with the Islamic State. On August 29, Politico Magazine asked a military and experts for which option(s) they would choose.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap makes the case that the Islamic State provides a much better target for airstrikes than traditional terrorist groups.

Some pundits like to insist that airpower can’t do much, but they need to look harder at how ISIL’s style creates liabilities for itself. ISIL arrogantly eschews the furtive, hit-and-run tactics that other Iraqi (and Afghan) militants used to escape being bludgeoned by U.S. fighters and bombers. Rather, they like to collect themselves into brazenly visible groups and use their reputation for savagery to scatter their already terrorized opponents.

Besides that, by “seizing, occupying and trying to administer territory instead of hiding quietly among the civilian populace,” they present “targeting opportunities that other terrorists assiduously avoid.” All of which “actually makes them vulnerable to a determined American air campaign.”

Thus does Dunlap reinforce the notion that the Islamic State is no longer a terrorist organization, but a state with an army. Then he adds

If American airpower dominates the skies, no ISIL militant can count on seeing another sunrise.

Oka-a-a-y. But wait, he’s just getting warmed up.

Some ISIL fighters might think they can endure airstrikes having undergone some desultory bombing by Syrian or Iraqi air forces, but that experience doesn’t give them even an inkling of the hell that the United States can unleash from the air.

All human beings have a primal fear of being relentlessly hunted by a ruthless predator against which they have no defense. And that is exactly the kind of psychological effect that today’s airpower can impose on ISIL. At a minimum, a muscular American air campaign can force the group to become so preoccupied with its own survival that its dream of establishing a terror caliphate is bound to suffer.

Now he just sounds like Generals Curtis LeMay or Thomas Power (the Strategic Air Command chiefs who espoused mutually assured destruction).

Skipping over the contributions of John McCain and Douglas Feith under the premise that life is too short to pay heed to, much less read, them, we’ll turn to retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno.

How serious is that threat? And what can the president do to address it? U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are sounding alarm bells about the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 ISIL foreign fighters of Western origin, who pose a serious and growing threat. Some of these U.S. and European passport-holders will return to their homelands infused with a deadly combination of combat experience and ideological fervor that could be easily aimed at Western targets. This lethal mixture poses a new and particularly insidious threat that some are characterizing as the most dangerous terrorist menace since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

While the Islamic State has transformed from terrorist group to, if equally savage, a state and army, it can revert to a terrorist group when it decides to. Barno adds

It is time for the United States to roll out an aggressive regional strategy to contain, disrupt and ultimately enable the defeat of ISIL. Such a strategy must involve not only U.S. friends in Middle Eastern states, but also European and other international allies of the United States as well. … the United States should muster a broad coalition of friends and allies with a stake in regional stability to help contain and facilitate the defeat of this growing international threat. These countries could contribute to air operations, provide intelligence or Special Forces or, at a minimum, provide funds and material support for anti-ISIL forces. They could also help support countries such as Jordan and Turkey, who can help form a bulwark against growing instability.

Retired Army Major General Paul Eaton builds on this.

The plan requires the development of the coalition, a test of our diplomatic power; the containment of ISIL, a test of the coalition’s economic and military power; and subsequent disruption and dismemberment of ISIL, leading to its ultimate defeat.

The coalition needs an operational leader working on behalf of the strategic U.S. position.

Who would provide such leadership? Eaton:

I vote for Turkey to have its day in the sun, with its excellent armed forces. From a geopolitical perspective, this NATO member and U.S. ally is perfectly positioned to take lead.