This Administration Official's ISIS Strategy May Have Been A Test-Run For Obama's Big Speech Tonight


AP/Connor Radnovich

President Barack Obama

On August 28th, President Barack Obama said that he he "didn't have a strategy" for defeating ISIS, an admission that he will attempt to correct during a prime-time speech tonight.

But a few days later, on September 3rd, Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, actually laid out a strategy for countering the group in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

Olsen's speech offers a potential preview of Obama's address tonight. It shows that the U.S. actually did have an idea of what to do about the group shortly after Obama's slip-up, even if this plan was being floated as a trial balloon by a administration officials, rather than by the president himself.

Most importantly, Olsen's speech demonstrates that the administration is willing to expand its efforts, and even U.S. military strikes on ISIS targets beyond Iraq's borders.

Olsen speech suggests that the administration views ISIS as the kind of immediate threat that can bring together a disparate and potentially fractious group of partners. "We are clear-eyed about the threat ISIL poses both inside and outside the region," said Olsen, using an alternative name for the group. "We are implementing a comprehensive strategy that calls for a global coalition using all tools - diplomatic, military, intelligence, and law enforcement-to defeat the group.

"Some nations will provide military assistance, direct and indirect, while others will provide humanitarian assistance," he elaborated later in the speech. "This effort is underway in Iraq, where other countries have joined us in providing humanitarian aid, military assistance and support for an inclusive government."

Syria Iraq Map_updated_05

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In context, this appears to be a veiled reference to Iran, which coordinated the defense of the strategically-vital Shii'ite town of Amerli and was involved in crafting the new government in Baghdad. It could also refer to Russia, which sent warplanes to Iraq, or even Syria, whose army has taken heavy losses in the fight against ISIS.

These are all countries with which the U.S. has many outstanding issues, and the new anti-ISIS coalition doesn't resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, or reverse American sanctions on Moscow. It just means that the administration views the ISIS threat as urgent enough to supersede any concerns over having to cooperate with these problematic security partners.

Obama could go over similar ground in tonight's speech, and explain why the ISIS threat is unique and imminent enough to necessitiate an alliance with some of the the U.S.'s top geopolitical opponents.

In the Brookings speech, Olsen also strongly hinted that the U.S. will have to carry out strikes on Syria.

"[W]e will continue to take direct action, both unilaterally and in concert with our partners, to degrade
ISIL's capacity to wage war and diminish its territorial control in both Iraq and Syria," he said.

In theory, unilateral U.S. attacks inside of Syria could only happen with Congressional authorization and a degree of intelligence and logistical coordination with the Assad regime, one of the region's serial human rights abusers and a long-standing supporter of regional terrorist groups.

It may be necessary to strike inside of Syria to defeat ISIS, but the implications of U.S. actions on Syrian territory are complex enough for the administration to have used Olsen, rather than Obama himself, to publicly broach idea.

Tonight, we'll find out if that's changed, and if the administration's been convinced that the national security benefits of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria are really worth the domestic and foreign policy-related difficulties that would come with them.