Iraq & Syria Special: Why Obama’s “ISIL” Shows a Lack of Strategy

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Why does President Obama insist on calling the enemy “ISIL”, rhymed with “whistle”? Not the Islamic State, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — just the acronym “ISIL”?

My University of Birmingham colleague Asaf Siniver and I have written for International Affairs about Obama’s choice of label, reviewing it alongside US actions towards the militants since the Islamic State’s rapid advance across Iraq in June 2014.

In part, the refusal to use “Islamic State” was an attempt to deny legitimacy to the movement. However, beyond this, we found that Obama’s ISIL was not the outcome of a well-defined strategy to confront the threat. Instead, it reflected — and still reflects — the absence of strategy:

*The President avoided the use of “Iraq” to maintain distance from American involvement in that country, both in the context of the failed 2003 invasion and in the complications of a renewed US intervention in 2014.

*The Administration “dislocated” the militants so they could be portrayed as an alien, terrorist organization invading a country in which they had no base.

*The President and his advisors continued to use the label amid their confusion over what to do in Syria, not only with respect to the Islamic State but to the conflict between the Assad regime and the opposition and rebels.


….[Obama’s] embrace of ISIL can be viewed as an evasion—in strategic, policy and operational terms. By rhetorically detaching ISIL from Syria, where the Islamic State has gained further ground and has established areas of governance, the Obama administration has distanced itself from the imperative of a coherent response to the group in its local setting.

Far from encouraging coherence and understanding, “ISIL” has been a term of dissonance. It is dissonant from the Islamic State’s self-definition of its ideology and system, embodied in the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014. It is dissonant from public consideration of the militants, with mainstream media using Islamic State or ISIS or, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, Daesh. And it is dissonant from public conceptions: a Google search reveals that ISIL is a far less popular term for the group (19,100,000 hits) than either Islamic State (72,200,000) or ISIS (208,000,000).

Why does the Obama administration set itself at odds with the prevailing discursive presentation of the Islamic State, at home and abroad? We suggest that recognition of the Islamic State by name involves engagement with its political, economic, and military as well as ideological force. That engagement in turn sets the task of a response to this force. However, the Obama administration — from either a lack of will or a fear of the consequences—does not wish to pursue engagement. Instead, it dislocates ‘ISIL’ and abstracts it as a “terrorist” threat, setting it
within a post-2001 discursive framework wherein anti-terrorism is preferred over confrontation of local issues.

Read full article….

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20 COMMENTS

  1. It is also a weak effort to acronymically limit IS to the Levant and Iraq, denying the reality that it has become a global phenomenon, holding territory in at least a dozen other countries already.
    .
    Interesting to note that Warshington has lost the power to impose its preferences on the world in this case … its nonsense and wishful thinking is simply being ignored, even by alleged ‘coalition allies’.

    • It would be more accurate to say that Obama has refrained from using America’s power.

      If they wanted to, the US government could mount a much stronger bombing campaign than the Russians are doing. They could completely destroy Raqqa, Damascus, Riyadh, Mecca, Tehran and any other city you care to name. But Obama, unlike Putin, wants to make friends.

      He also, I think, wants the inhabitants of the Middle East to sort out their own problems, believing that an order imposed from outside is bound to fail.

        • The US has the power to destroy any city in the world. It refrains from doing so, because it wouldn’t benefit the USA.

          What is Pam Geller ?

      • “He also, I think, wants the inhabitants of the Middle East to sort out their own problems, believing that an order imposed from outside is bound to fail.”

        But in afghanistan -e.g- he is imposing an order from outside and also in iraq, etc.

        • But very reluctantly. Some of the past commitments are difficult to get out of.

          Obama has wanted to bring all the troops home (and close down the Guatamo Bay jail) since he took office. Somehow he hasn’t quite managed it.

          • Any of the current crop of candidates, barring Sanders, but including Trump and Cruz, will not accept the current status quo of an appeasing US unable to hold the Russian bear from raiding the pigpen.

            Trump is a firm believer in american might and throwing its weight around the globe to get its way. He will direct funds to the emaciated DoD, and most of all demand Nato countries to foot the bill for Nato.

            If he is elected, on his first encounter with Putin, he is bound to give him a kick in the arse, as opposed to dance to Putin’s tune and trying to keep Putin entertained and in play. No matter how realpolitic / isolationist Trump may be, he will quickly understand that US interests are being smothered by Russia and playing good with Putin is not going to work. Businessmen are the most realist of all, and take no prisoners. The reason is any loss comes directly out of their own pockets instead of someone else’s pocket. Business is more competitive war than any world war. And even if he uses a fraction of his competitive business instincts and applies that to geopolitics, you will see a major shift in US direction and magnitude in foreign policy decision. The only reason he may be a bit ambivalent towards Putin at this time is because his base is the fringe rightwing isolationist vote. He cannot get into a debate with them about the global role of the US at this time, and his team is absent as well.

            It simply cannot get any worse, given the current state of appeasement and humiliation, and treason to liberal ideals. Trump is no Reagan. But he isn’t that demented to dish more of what Obama wrongly believes to be a “responsible” US. Obama and his band of regressive anti-imperialists are history. I hope a good obituary will be written for them in due time.

            • Hehe, when all hope dies, cast yourself prostrate before Ming the Merciless mighty Emperor Trump, whose swiv’lling eyes can tell no lies.
              .
              As for dealing with Putin, he’ll be bent over Vlad’s knee at the first encounter and have the blusterous nonsense spanked outta him, then come back with “It was the best deal I could get, whaddaya complaining about? Now knuckle down to work on my Great Wall and shaddup or you’re fired, Motherfuckers!
              .
              Even hard-bitten neocon Harpies for Hill-Dawg [here’s looking at you, Scott!] are reconciling themselves to the inevitability of President Trump, and starting to hunt around for honest employment.

  2. “Why does the Obama administration set itself at odds with the prevailing discursive presentation of the Islamic State, at home and abroad? We suggest that recognition of the Islamic State by name involves engagement with its political, economic, and military as well as ideological force.”

    You should also associate this with John Austin´s “performative utterances” in wich “the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action”. This administration is really scraping the bottom of the barrel…

  3. For you youngins…………

    I grew up during the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson bailed in 1968 due to the obvious fact that Vietnam War was not winnable. It was a quagmire. He was burned out and came to his senses. That is exactly what Obama is doing. The conflict in Syria is a hot mess. It is in no means winnable. Obama is doing the right thing.

  4. Obama does have a strategy….. To go out on top by putting together negotiations. That is what is happening now. Obama wants negotiations one way or another. If it involves letting Putin have his way, he will do it. It’s a done deal. Negotiations are going to happen.

    Michael Weiss is having a hissy fit on Twitter. Quite fun to watch/read.

  5. “However, beyond this, we found that Obama’s ISIL was not the outcome of a well-defined strategy to confront the threat. Instead, it reflected — and still reflects — the absence of strategy:”
    Of course Ol’bummer has no strategy to confront ISIS. He has a totally different agenda to what you think and does not need to confront ISIS or develope a strategy. He has no intention of defeating ISIS and neither does Pea-Brain Putin, Bashyer Arsof, Iran etc If any one of these wanted ISIS defeated they would be gone within weeks.
    Ol’bummer has played the game and killed as many Sunnis as he can. He leapt at the opportunity to bomb JAN because they are against Arsof. He leapt at the opportunity to drop his ‘red line’ because he is on Arsofs side. He now leaps at the opportunity to see the FSA and rebels battered by Pea-brain Putin because that is what he wants. There is nothing complicated in this other than he says one thing and does another. (Note: NFL it is does and not dose, before you jump into bed with her make sure she does not have a dose!).
    He wants Iran and the Alawites to enslave the Syrian people and works towards that. He is a Shiite Muslim who hates Sunnis and has taken the stupid Yanks for a ride. He is fighting for Shiite dominance and the dumb Americans have given him all of their assistance. The terrorist organisation Hezbollah have helped him because they are paid mercenaries . Pea-brain Putin has joined in because he wants his military port. Iran have joined in because they want an empire and an overland route to Lebanon. The murdering trolls have joined in because they are paid to prostitute their talents. The Afghans have joined in because they are desperate etc etc.
    The only people trying to do the right thing are the Syrians fighting for freedom and democracy. The rest of the world is a total disgrace.

    • “dumb Americans”
      .
      Barleyboy, my fellow Americans really don’t care what happens in Syria. AND, most importantly, Americans will not go for an invasion of another country nor will they go for another Afghanistan-like occupation.
      .
      Historic times. Libya clipped NATO’s wings. Syria and Ukraine put an end to the West’s overthrowing sovereign governments.
      .
      Western adventurism is over.
      .
      Erdogan continues to destroy Turkey from the inside out.
      .
      Warmongers like John McCain will not be around much longer. Tick tock.
      .
      Next on the agenda of Americans……….. the Superbowl. Broncos or Panthers? Yes, we dumb Americans live in our own world.

  6. Kurdistan’s Elite Counterterrorism Group Takes the Fight to ISIS
    http://sofrep.com/43138/kurdistans-elite-counterterrorism-group-takes-fight-isis/ 9/21/2015

    Nova K. Doski @NovaDaban
    https://twitter.com/NovaDaban/status/582826801422032897 3/21/2015
    #Rojava’s Anti-Terror Unit (YAT), allegedly trained by #KRG Counter-Terrorism Group (PUK affiliated) m.youtube.com/watch?feature=… #YPG #Kurdistan

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMuuYFnG1Fw

    Wladimir @vvanwilgenburg
    https://twitter.com/vvanwilgenburg/status/689345987672952832 1/18/2016
    Video: #PKK & #CTG (and US?) together in fight against IS in #Kirkuk youtube.com/watch?v=tCVbuU… #twitterkurds

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCVbuUK9dYE

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