When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham broke into the headlines in early 2014 after conquering Fallujah, the group was not taken very seriously. Responding to a question about the recent successes of groups flying al Qaeda’s flag, U.S. President Barack Obama said that “if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” By midsummer, after ISIS seized control of large sections of Syria and Iraq and declared a new caliphate, the snark started turning into panic. And by early 2015, ISIS had displaced al Qaeda as the hottest brand in global jihad.
Shocked into mounting some sort of response to these developments, the Obama administration pressed for a new Iraqi government, sent aid to Baghdad and the Kurds up north, launched air attacks against ISIS targets, and tried to put together an anti-ISIS coalition. These measures helped stem the group’s advances, and in recent months it has begun losing some of the ground it had gained. But with affiliates popping up across the Middle East and foreign fighters continuing to flood in, the group is still very much a problem. And with the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign heating up, attacks on the Obama administration’s ISIS policy are becoming a staple of American political discussion.
All this was the backdrop for a recent war game arranged by the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, in conjunction with Foreign Affairs, designed to explore what the consequences would be if rather than falling back, ISIS suddenly leapt forward—either by mounting a major offensive against Baghdad or by pulling off a dramatic terrorist attack against a prominent American target, killing dozens in the process. With an impressive roster of blue-chip experts and former officials playing the roles of their real-life counterparts, the game was supposed to provide insight into how the United States and other interested parties would react to such a scenario and what would happen next.
There were lots of insights gained, which you can read about in the Atlantic Council’s write-up of the event. From our perspective, though, three takeaways stood out from the rest—the surprising symmetry of confidence on both sides, the gap between short-term tactical response and long-term strategy, and the stickiness of current U.S. policy.
Looking at a radical millenarian group such as ISIS, Western observers tend to assume it will eventually self-destruct from its own extremism. Even in the face of an ISIS advance, U.S. policymakers during the war game displayed some of this confidence, to the point of expressing frustration at the enemy’s refusal to recognize the futility of its actions and the imminence of its defeat. But ISIS leaders displayed a similar self-confidence during the game, taking heart from their belief in the ultimate triumph of their cause and the divine forces driving the course of history behind the scenes. This suggests that neither side is likely to give in quickly or easily and that the struggle between them will be long and difficult.
When confronted with initial setbacks, meanwhile, line officials on the U.S. team were quick to counter with specific tactical moves to shore up their position or regain control over the situation. Consumed with what needed to be done right away to stem further losses on the ground, they were less attentive to making sure their moves fit appropriately into some larger, longer-term strategy for dealing with the conflict or region more generally. Higher-level officials, including the president, did raise such broader strategic questions, along with domestic political ones, but made little progress toward answers. In the game, as presumably in real life, this made for quick, reactive policymaking instead of careful, proactive policymaking—hardly what U.S. interests require.
Perhaps most interesting, finally, given the amount of criticism current U.S. policy toward ISIS regularly receives, was what the game showed about that policy’s stickiness. Neither a dramatic ISIS advance nor a horrifying ISIS attack led Washington to shift to a fundamentally different approach to the conflict—say, by either withdrawing or escalating to a full-scale American intervention. Instead, Washington responded to both scenarios by incrementally adjusting its existing policy, prosecuting its anti-ISIS campaign with a bit more vigor and a few additional resources.
This suggests that despite all the trash talk about the Obama administration’s approach to ISIS, in Washington and elsewhere, that strategy—using airpower and military aid to work with local and regional partners in containing the ISIS threat and gradually pushing the group back on its heels—is a more durable and sensible compromise than many think. It is possible that larger shocks than those envisaged in the game could move Washington to fight or flight. But the game implied that the more dramatic alternatives commonly offered by critics of the administration—on both left and right—had so many costs and risks as to make them decidedly problematic. To the extent that is correct, one should expect U.S. policy toward ISIS to muddle through for the foreseeable future, as a classic “least bad” alternative to a wicked problem.