Courtesy Reuters

The Retrenchment War

Why the War Against ISIS Will Be Fought On the Cheap

When U.S. President Barack Obama described a multipronged strategy designed to “degrade, and ultimately destroy,” the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State) in a national address two weeks ago, some interpreted his remarks as a break with his administration’s policies of retrenchment. Writing for Business Insider, the journalist Michael Kelley characterized the speech as “a radical shift in the administration's intentional withdrawal from the Middle East.” The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg observed in The Atlantic that the president has “learned that there is no way out” of the Middle East. New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy concluded, “The realist has relented,” going “a long way in a short time” on the need for military engagement. And as New York Times editorial board warned, “The Slippery Slope Begins.”

This new consensus is mistaken. Retrenchment remains the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy and will likely remain so as long as the country faces constraining political and economic conditions. Although there is still much uncertainty about how the United States will conduct its campaign against ISIS, Obama’s words are consistent with his previous efforts to limit U.S. foreign policy entanglements. More important, his remedies are cribbed straight from the retrenchment handbook. On the military side, the emphasis is on expanded airstrikes and intelligence and reconnaissance missions, paired with increased efforts to advise and assist Iraqi security forces. On the diplomatic side, the administration has endorsed a parallel effort to build a regional coalition, which would curtail the flow of fighters and money to ISIS. It has also proposed additional military and economic assistance for regional proxies, including the Kurdish peshmerga and moderate Syrian rebels. 

In other words, Obama is relying on the same measures that retrenching states have used to fight brushfires for centuries -- measures that emphasize frugality and flexibility. The president has outlined a modest counterterrorism campaign with a light military footprint and a heavier reliance on regional partners. Neither of these missions requires an extensive commitment of U.

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