Right now, President Barack Obama said to some astonishment this week, the US does not have a “complete strategy” to defeat Isis in Iraq and Syria – and the figures released by the Pentagon this week appear to support that admission.
Since last August, when air strikes against the would-be caliphate began, the total cost of operations has been some $2.7bn (£1.7bn), an average of $9.1m per day. That sum may sound imposing, but by the standards of recent American wars, and a Pentagon budget of $600bn-plus, it is chicken feed. Spending will increase somewhat with the dispatch of 450 additional US troops just announced by the administration, and the possibility that more military trainers will be sent – and more bases opened in the months ahead – to advise and help the Iraqis.
But this approach raises more questions than it answers. A few hundred extra boots on the ground will not change the war’s course. Rather, it is the minimum required to show US support for Iraq’s beleaguered premier, Haider al-Abadi, after the stinging remarks of a top Pentagon commander that the Iraqi army, despite a clear advantage in men and equipment, did not have the will to defend Ramadi, capital of the Sunni Anbar province when it fell to Isis in May. But to defeat Isis, a far larger and more robust US intervention would be needed. That is a step the American public, if not some trigger-happy Republican presidential candidates, firmly oppose.
At this point, it becomes clear that Mr Obama does have a strategy. It is precisely to do the bare minimum to preserve US credibility, while keeping his country out of another ruinous ground war in the Middle East – and this one in defence of a sectarian and ethnically splintered country that, to borrow Metternich’s description of mid-19th century Italy, is now little more than a geographical expression.Reuse content