A year ago, President Barack Obama talked a big talk when it came to the so-called Islamic State, declaring that the United States and its allies would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group that had seized large territories in Iraq and Syria.
But this week, even with the victory in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar and the news that ISIS’s most famous executioner Mohammed Emwazi—best known as “Jihadi John”—was likely killed in a U.S. drone strike, Obama struck a very different tone.
Gone were the buzzwords “defeat” and “destroy.” Instead, Obama said the U.S. strategy had always been to “contain” the group, a subtle shift in language, and another indication that progress against the group has been far more difficult to achieve than originally envisioned.
“From the start, our goal has been first to contain them, and we have contained them,” Obama told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in a Thursday afternoon interview that took place before the strike against Emwazi.
But when Obama first told the American public a year ago about his strategy, he said it was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.
In that speech, Obama acknowledged that it would take time to defeat ISIS, but the conditions he described on Thursday conveyed a fight that could take more than a generation to resolve.
“Until we get the Syrian political situation resolved and until Assad is no longer a lightning rod for Sunnis in Syria, and that entire region is no longer a proxy war for Shia-Sunni conflict, we are going to continue to have problems,” Obama said.
In the meantime, the ISIS threat will have to be contained, he said.
“We have indeed gone from ‘degrade and destroy’ to what is effectively a containment strategy,” said Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council. “I believe this reflects the president’s assessment that destroying ISIS outright is either impossible at present, or would carry unacceptable political and military costs and risks.”
Itani said it’s difficult to gauge whether Obama “has always believed this and is now merely bringing his rhetoric in line with his belief, or whether he genuinely expected the anti-ISIS effort to go better than it has and was forced to abandon the ‘degrade and destroy’ mission.”
Compared to the momentum ISIS had in June 2014, when it rolled into Mosul, easily capturing Iraq’s second-largest city, and threatening to do the same in Baghdad and Erbil, the group can be seen as largely “contained,” at least in Iraq.
But Obama’s assertion Thursday that ISIS has not gained ground in Iraq overlooks the important capture of Ramadi, which ISIS took in May.
And while it’s no longer marching on Baghdad, ISIS has managed to hang on to most of its key territory in Iraq, and the U.S. and Iraqi forces have had to indefinitely delay the crucial battle to retake Mosul, an offensive originally forecasted to take place last spring.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the group has faced setbacks—most famously being driven out of the border town of Kobani—but it has also managed to expand its control, taking new towns in central Syria.
But, Obama does not think the group is gaining strength.
“You don’t see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror army.
And this has always been the goal of the U.S, he argued. “We’ve always understood that our goal has to be militarily constraining ISIL’s capabilities, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing.”
“Contain”... “constrain” … “shrink in its scope of operations.” Does this new language indicate the White House may be dialing back its objectives, at least in the near term?
No, said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Just because Obama is using the word “containment,” doesn’t mean the goalposts have moved, the official told The Daily Beast. The objectives in the fight against ISIS have always been “tiered,” meaning in order to defeat the group, you have to contain it first.
And Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the U.S. commitment to “defeat” the group in remarks he made Thursday at the United States Institute of Peace.
But Obama’s comments did set a subtle new tone for how the Obama administration discusses its strategy.
Obama “is managing expectations,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies for the Royal United Services Institute. “Actually, it's refreshingly honest.”
When Obama first told the American public a year ago about his plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, some defense experts decried the strategy as overly ambitious.
“A more realistic approach would aim first to contain the group’s reach and then to roll back its gains,” wrote Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
In his essay, Fontaine pointed to what he saw as “yawning gaps between America’s stated goals—destroy ISIS— and its method of achieving them—airstrikes, no boots on the ground.”
Now, with Obama seemingly embracing the “C” word, that gap between objectives and strategy could be narrowing.
The White House and the Pentagon have always said this fight would take years, said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I don’t think anyone’s made promises that somehow there would be a massive, instant gain in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “But we really need to keep asking ourselves: Where is all of this headed? The problem is at the current rate, this is going to be a very long, painful, uncertain conflict.”