Taking Shots on ISIS, Obama Argues His Strategy Is Working

President Barack Obama delivers remarks after attending a National Security Council meeting on the anti-ISIS campaign, at the Pentagon on December 14. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Under pressure from bipartisan critics who call his strategy against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) ineffective, President Barack Obama on Monday traveled to the Pentagon for a high-profile huddle with his National Security Council and top generals. The move was meant to reassure Americans that he's making the fight against the jihadists a top priority. But for the second time in less than two weeks, the president announced no new solutions for dealing with the so-called caliphate.

Instead he announced he was sending Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to the Middle East to win greater support for the military campaign from allies there. He noted the increased number of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria and the amount territory in both countries that a U.S.-backed alliance have wrested from the militants. Obama also ticked off the names of a half dozen ISIS leaders that U.S. drone strikes have killed in the Middle East and North Africa. "We are hitting ISIL harder than ever," Obama said at a Pentagon press briefing at the end of his visit, using an alternative name for ISIS. "ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our message to them is simple: You're next."

Obama's Pentagon visit is part of a new White House effort to convince the public that his strategy to defeat ISIS is working. On December 6, in the wake of an apparently ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people, Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He explained his strategy to frightened Americans, saying that U.S. airstrikes in support of local forces and U.S. Special Operations raids against ISIS leaders, will ultimately defeat the group.

Ever since the deadly assault in Paris last month and the San Bernardino attack, polls have shown a deepening fear in the U.S. about more attacks at home. Such fears are driving support for Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, who says he would prevent Muslims from entering the U.S. The polls also show less than a quarter of Americans believe Obama has a clear plan to deal with ISIS militants.

The public's skepticism is likely due in large part to the slow progress Obama's military campaign has achieved and the constant drumbeat of Republican criticism of his strategy, which his critics have called "too little, too late" to score a decisive victory over the militants.

Yet when it comes to alternative proposals for an anti-ISIS strategy, most Republican presidential candidates have approaches that are similar to what Obama is already doing. Like the president, most GOP hopefuls rule out a large U.S. ground force and support the use of airstrikes and special operations forces. Aside from rhetoric, the only discernable differences between most of the GOP candidates and the president: the pace of operations, which some Republicans say should be faster.

The exception is long shot candidate Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Backed by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham has called for a force of at least 10,000 U.S. troops to fight ISIS on the ground, as well as operations that would carve out a safe haven for Syrian refugees on the border with Turkey. The administration has rejected both proposals, arguing the use of U.S. ground troops would only boost ISIS's recruitment efforts, while a safe zone would draw Russian forces fighting on the side of the Syrian government into a direct confrontation with the U.S.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Obama's effort to sell his strategy to the public has been his failure to use appearances like the one at the Pentagon to point out the lack of any new ideas in the Republican criticism—and to call on Americans to show greater patience as he tries to defeat a formidable enemy while keeping the country out of another major Middle East war.

Instead, on Monday Obama said his administration is "moving forward with a great sense of urgency" against ISIS. Since the military campaign began in August 2014 he said, U.S. warplanes have carried out more than 9,000 airstrikes, while local ground forces have recaptured 40 percent of the populated areas that ISIS has seized in Syria and Iraq. But he also acknowledged that wasn't sufficient to defeat the militants anytime soon. "We recognize that progress needs to happen faster," he said.

In recent weeks, Obama ordered some 200 U.S. special operations forces to Iraq, where they're assisting Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces in targeting for U.S. airstrikes, training and conducting raids against ISIS. There are 3,500 U.S. military trainers in Iraq, as well as another 50 members of U.S. special operations forces in Syria, where they are assisting a combined force of Sunni Arab and Kurdish fighters who are closing in on ISIS's self-declared capital of Raqqa, in eastern Syria.

Obama stressed that recent air strikes against oil facilities under ISIS control in both Iraq and Syria were aimed at depriving the militants of a key source of revenue, which the U.S. says comes from oil sold back to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad or smuggled into Turkey. Energy experts estimate ISIS oil earnings at $1.5 million a day. "As we squeeze its heart, we'll make it that much harder for [ISIS] to pump its terror and propaganda into the rest of the world," Obama said.

But Kevin Book, an oil expert at Clearview Energy Partners, notes that so far, U.S. airstrikes have focused on crude ISIS refineries and tanker trucks, both of which are easily replaced. He says Obama has been reluctant to hit the oil wells themselves because he and other Western leaders are counting on Syrian oil to help pay for the country's reconstruction once its civil war ends. "At this rate, it will take years and a lot more airstrikes to shut down ISIS's oil revenue," Book tells Newsweek.

It's also unclear whether Carter, who departed for the Middle East immediately after Obama left the Pentagon, will produce anything meaningful as he tries to shore up more support for the U.S.-led fight. At the start of Obama's military campaign against ISIS, Washington's principle Sunni Arab allies in the region—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—joined a coalition of some 65 countries and even flew a few bombing sorties against ISIS in Syria. But since then, both countries have become bogged down in a grinding military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which they say is now their top priority. Egypt, the only other U.S. ally in the region of any military significance, says it's doing its part as a member of the coalition by fighting an ISIS affiliate in the Sinai desert.

On Monday, some of Obama's more hawkish critics said the president's use of the Pentagon to reinforce a message of military resolve seemed contrived and unconvincing. "Pure political theater," tweeted Justin T. Johnson, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "A change in backdrop for a press conference is not the same as a change in national security policy."

The way Obama sees it, however, what the U.S. needs isn't a change in policy, but a strengthening of resolve in the face of a long struggle—something that isn't easy to sell, regardless of the backdrop.