President Obama may blame the lack of a strategy for training the troops on Baghdad, but solving ISIS is much bigger than finding a fighting force.
Iraq's army is a pathetic mess. Everyone inside the Pentagon knows this. The White House does too. And setting aside official protest by Baghdad, the Iraqi government is so aware it's trembling.
But that's not why ISIS is winning. And to be clear, ISIS is winning.
The terrorist group too extreme for al Qaeda now controls 50 percent of Syria and an increasing share of Iraq. It's conducting suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia and inspiring rocket launches from Gaza into Israel. All this ISIS has accomplished in one year. Despite more than 3,800 airstrikesagainst it.
On Monday, when asked about a U.S. strategy in the face of this frightening advance, President Obama said the United States is studying how it can help recruit more Iraqis to fight and get Iraqi soldiers better ready for war. "Where we've trained Iraqi forces directly and equipped them and we have a train-and-assist posture, they operate effectively," Obama contends. "Where we haven't—morale, lack of equipment, etc.—may undermine the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces."
According to Obama, arresting ISIS is an Iraqi responsibility.
This is dishonest. That he takes this position, however, is understandable. The man ushered into office in part on a promise to get America out of Iraq (and Afghanistan) does not want to be the man who did that only to watch that state fail and then go back in. Add to this the polling: While the public wants a U.S. campaign against ISIS, it remains divided over the use of ground troops.
So as Obama's critics shout about the president putting politics, and legacy, ahead of security, the truth is that his ambivalence reflects the collective churning of the American gut. We think we've seen this movie before, and we didn't like the ending.
But we haven't seen this movie before because this one is not about Iraq. And after a decade of training Iraqi troops, a few more months of tutoring will not turn this force into one that can defeat what Obama today called the "nimble," "aggressive," and "opportunistic" Islamic State fighters.
It's about ISIS, a lethal, strategically smart and tactically effective adversary whose intentions are not contained by Iraq's borders.
The United States – under Barack Obama or the next president – can choose to sit this out, to let Sunni fight Shia and then Wahhabi fight Sunni until some resolution is found. The risk associated with this option is that what remains standing could be the slave-holding, woman-raping, Christian- and Jew-killing territory known as the Islamic State, which will not pause to relish victory but instead set sights on Europe and the United States.
Or the United States – under Barack Obama or the next president – can choose to engage aggressively, hoping that a greater assault than what's being accomplished by U.S. airpower and on-the-ground training will stop ISIS from destroying the governments in the region that still take Washington's calls. The cost of this choice is great: money and, more importantly, blood.
There are certainly other plausible scenarios between these two extremes. But in any case, this is the debate America should be having. Wait it out and see what might be necessary later, knowing it could be more taxing and destructive than it would be now. Or engage yet again in a region that seems committed to conducting the intra-Muslim war the world so desperately wants the Middle East to avoid.
No matter the answer, that's a more honest question to consider than whether the Iraqi army is trained well enough.