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.
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.