In the beginning there was Operation Overlord. Then came Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. Now the fight against the Islamic State has introduced a new concept into modern warfare. Call it Operation Whack-a-Mole.
“If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole,” the president said Monday afternoon at the end of a Pentagon news conference at which he gave an overview of developments in Syria and Iraq.
Obama had used the phrase before, but this was shock-and-awe-worthy – the commander in chief, in a rare visit to Defense Department headquarters, standing onstage with grim-faced and medal-festooned generals and likening war strategy to … an arcade game.
As a military matter, what Obama said was true: The United States can’t possibly fight terrorists by swinging a mallet at them wherever they show their heads. And yet that has, essentially, been the U.S. strategy in Syria and Iraq – fighting Islamic State militants with 5,000 targeted airstrikes but doing very little to solve the overall threat. Technically, the Islamic State fight is called Operation Inherent Resolve – but Whack-a-Mole gets closer to reality.
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Obama did little to punish the Syrian regime when it crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons. He made things worse for himself last month when, after a meeting in Europe with world leaders, he admitted that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the Islamic State.
Obama, in the Pentagon briefing room after his session with the top brass, offered a bit of a pep talk, using another name for the Islamic State: “ISIL lost at the Mosul Dam. ISIL lost at Mount Sinjar. ISIL has lost repeatedly across Kirkuk province. ISIL lost at Tikrit. … ISIL lost at Kobani.”
Whack, whack, whack.
Obama did provide the outlines of a comprehensive strategy. He acknowledged that there can be no solution without a new government in Syria, minus President Bashar al-Assad. He spoke of more support for anti-Islamic State forces. He spoke about the group’s threat metastasizing beyond the region.
But he said little about what he’ll do specifically. Re-engage with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to negotiate a solution to the Syrian civil war? Boost the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army? Establish safe zones in Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey?
The sports-minded Obama spoke Monday of the danger of small-cell terrorist attacks inspired by the Islamic State: “We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks.”
Game on. But let’s stop playing whack-a-mole in Syria and Iraq.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.