Conditional surrender: What “degrade and destroy” really means

Conditional surrender: What “degrade and destroy” really means
7 min read
04 December, 2014
Obama's much-derided strategy to fight the Islamic State group nevertheless reflects the widespread view in America that the US needs to do something, so long as it doesn’t include expending American lives or breaking the bank.
Obama discussses strategy with coalition military leaders in October. The discussion continues (Getty)

Words matter, particularly when uttered by American presidents – and most especially when those presidents talk about war. During the January 1943 Anglo-American conference in Casablanca in the middle of the Second World War (a full eighteen months before the invasion of Europe), then-President Franklin Roosevelt announced that the US and its allies would accept nothing but an “unconditional surrender” from Hitler’s Germany and Hirohito’s Japan.

Roosevelt’s announcement signalled Allied dedication to their cause, but it came as a surprise to British Prime

     We broke the china when we launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and we failed to own it.

- advisor to US Joint Chiefs of Staff

Minister Winston Churchill, who was not informed of the Roosevelt announcement before it was made. Nor, as it turns out, was the American military, many of whose senior officers thought it a mistake.

For good reason. Roosevelt’s statement allowed Hitler and his cronies to demand unquestioned obeisance from the German people – who were told that they were now battling not simply for Hitler’s fascist regime, but for the survival of the German nation. Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower thought the statement was counterproductive, and tried to get it modified, because it would cost Allied lives. The Germans, he thought, would now battle to the last soldier.

Perhaps the only world leader who actually welcomed Roosevelt’s statement was the Soviet premier Joe Stalin, because he realized that Roosevelt’s requirement would only be met when his army’s soldiers stormed Berlin – leaving the Red Army in charge of Eastern Europe. Which was just fine with him. Watching this from up-close, General Ira Eaker, the commander of the US Eighth Air Force (assigned the unenviable task of razing German cities to the ground) was even less charitable, issuing a rhetorical and wisely private, judgment: “how stupid can you be?” he asked.

It depends

So it is with some trepidation that a host of political analysts, historians and military officers continue to parse President Barack Obama’s September 10 announcement that the US was adopting a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS). The questions about that statement are now legion, for while the president’s words seemed both authoritative and transparent (they were repeated a dozen times by White House spokespersons in the twenty-four hours following their utterance), they were – and remain -- far more opaque than Obama intended. Writing in The Guardian one week following the Obama announcement, columnist Spencer Ackermann said that while Obama’s statement was meant to signal “toughness and finality”, its meaning remained “elusive”.

Ackermann’s judgment now seems axiomatic. A series of sometimes embarrassing questions have been raised about what exactly Obama meant by “degrade and ultimately destroy”, most especially by senior US military officers, those out-of-uniform military experts who advise them – and members of the US Congress. Does the “degrade and ultimately destroy” statement mean that the president might inevitably be required to commit US troops to the fight? How closely will the US military be cooperating with Iran? Will the anti-IS campaign be calibrated differently in Syria than in Iraq? And what costs will the new Iraqi government be required to bear in the fight? So far, at least, the answers to these questions have been loud, clear – and confusing.

Will the US send ground troops to Iraq? On November 7 the White House announced that while it would be sending an additional 1,500 US advisors to Iraq (doubling the number of Americans in the country), the White House was maintaining its pledge that it is “not going to be putting US men and women back into combat”. But that statement was qualified less than one week later, when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, told the Congress that he would recommend that the president abandon his pledge if he deemed it necessary. Would the US be sending ground troops to Iraq? “No,” said the White House. “Well, it depends,” said Dempsey.

Will the US cooperate with Iran in defeating the IS group? On 5 September, State Department spokeswoman Maria Harf ruled out any US cooperation with Iran in Iraq, and certainly not in Syria. Her statement left no room for interpretation – “We don’t co-ordinate military action or share intelligence with Iran,” she told a press gathering, And that was that.

Or maybe not. On 15 September, Secretary of State John Kerry said that while the US would not be coordinating its actions in Iraq with Iran, “we’re open to have a conversation [with them] at some point in time if there’s a way to find something constructive.” Kerry would not speculate on the difference between “coordinating” as opposed to having “a discussion”, but at the beginning of November, as it turns out, the US confirmed that coordinating with Iran in Iraq might be necessary – as US and Iranian fighter jets fighting the IS group will be sharing the same airspace. Will the US coordinate its anti-IS military campaign with Iran? Absolutely not, says the State Department. Well, it depends, said the US military.

The same “it depends” phrase is particularly important when US officials explain what form the anti-IS fight will take in Syria – and how much the Iraqi government will be required to spend to save their own country. The Pentagon made it clear at the outset of the anti-IS campaign that the US is actually waging two wars against the terrorist group, one that is meant to “strategically degrade” IS in Syria, and another that is more “tactical” – in Iraq.

Speaking to the press on 26 September, Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby explained the difference by noting that the fight in Syria depends on the effectiveness of the US air campaign, while the fight in Iraq depends on IS ground movements. As for the Iraqi military component in this fight, new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has made it clear that victory depends on his ability to reform the Iraqi military – and on the ability of the US to quickly train a cadre of elite Iraqi units.

So how committed are the Iraqis to the fight? Well, it appears, that depends.

Own the china

Barack Obama has paid a price for these “it depends” qualifiers. Public support for the intervention against the IS group remains constant (and positive), but only 30 percent of Americans in a recent poll said they believe the US and its allies have articulated “a clear goal” in the campaign.

The Washington policymaking community agrees. Respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote on 23 October that “the basic goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State always bordered on the ridiculous.” Cordesman went on to note that the administration is following a “non-strategy” when it comes to dealing with the IS in Syria, and an “uncertain strategy” when dealing with the group in Iraq.

It turns out that key senior US military officers, those assigned to implement it, also have doubts about the US strategy.

“If we’re really going to be serious about this, then we ought to go ‘all in,’” a senior U.S. Army officer told me recently. “And by ‘all in,’ I mean we ought to put the 1st Division in Baghdad, the 2nd Armoured [Division] on their right flank and the 1st MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] backing them up and we tell them to head west – and kill every male aged 18 to 35 year old waving a black flag.”

The beauty of this strategy, this officer says, is that it would solve not only the problem of the IS group but the larger problem faced by the US military in fighting serial insurgencies over the last six decades. “We’d defeat ISIS pretty quick,” this military officer says, “but we’d also scare the hell out of the rest of the world. Right now, no one’s scared of us, which is why we have ISIS in the first place.”

While this US officer’s view represents a decidedly minority opinion in the Pentagon, it accurately reflects the frustration felt by both Obama and the vast majority of the American people. For the simple truth is that Obama’s “ridiculous” strategy reflects the widespread view that the US needs to do something, so long as that something doesn’t include expending American lives or breaking the US treasury.

“We have to remember what Colin Powell told George Bush about the Iraq invasion,” a retired Colonel who serves as an advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff told me in the wake of Obama’s September announcement. “Powell said that ‘if you break the china, then you own it.’ Well, like it or not, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We broke the china when we launched Operation Iraqi Freedom [in 2003] and we failed to own it. So now we have to go back in, rebreak the china, and own it all over again.”

More simply, the Obama policy is perfectly understandable, at least from a political point of view. “Owning the china” means once again adopting unappetizing half measures that promise to do something eventually, but without sparking an Ira Eaker-like response from America’s voters. Going all in? – “how stupid can you be?”