Reconsidering President Obama's ISIS Strategy

September 14, 2014

Students work in small groups and as a class to decide on what policies they would recommend to the President to deal with threats posed by ISIS. 

To the Teacher:

In this lesson, students work in small groups and as a class to decide how they think the U.S. should respond to threats posed by ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State). The activity includes two readings: excerpts from President Obama's September 10, 2014, address outlining the new U.S. strategy to counter ISIS, and an article outlining alternative approaches. If there isn't time to read the excerpts in class you may want to assign the readings as homework and facilitate part of the activity below on the following day.


Write the acronym "ISIS" on the board or chart paper.
Ask students: Does anyone know what ISIS is?
Elicit or explain that ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is a group made up of a branch of Sunni Muslim militants whose goal is to win political control over Iraq, Syria, and other Muslim-dominated areas and create a Muslim "caliphate" in which people are ruled by a Muslim caliph, or leader. The group has also been called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It now calls itself the "Islamic State." (Write the terms ISIL and Islamic State on the board.)
ISIS includes thousands of fighters. It has claimed responsibility for attacks on government and military targets as well as for attacks that killed thousands of civilians. It now controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. The United Nations and Amnesty International have accused ISIS of serious human rights abuses. The U.S. and some other countries consider ISIS to be a terrorist organization.
Tell students that on September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new U.S. strategy for countering ISIS.  

Ask: Did you hear or read about the speech?  If so, what do you know about it? 
Elicit or explain that in the speech the President laid out a new U.S. strategy for countering ISIS that includes increased U.S. military intervention in Iraq. 
Tell students that in this activity, we'll pretend that President Obama has not yet decided on a strategy.  Students will form small groups, and each group will act as a special advisory team to the President.  They will read President Obama's proposal and several alternative proposals for countering ISIS violence, and then recommend the policy or policies they think are best.
If there is time, have students read in class the handout at the bottom of this lesson.  If not, have students do the reading as homework, and conduct the rest of the activity on the following day.

Presidential Advisory Teams

Ask students to break into groups of 4-6:  Have students count off from 1 to 4 (or 1 to 6), then  have all ones meet in one part of the room, all twos in another, etc.
Ask each group to read the handout at the bottom of this lesson. It includes two readings. The first is an excerpt from President Obama's address on September 10, 2014.  The second is an article by the coalition Win Without War, which offers several alternative strategies.  Tell students to get in the mindset of a Presidential advisory team.  Which policy options are best? 
Give students time  to read the handout.
When students have finished reading, tell them that each presidential advisory team will have 20 minutes to come up with their policy recommendations for the president, answering these questions:

  • What policy or policies do you think the president should adopt?
  • Why?

Tell students that they do not have to be limited to the policies described in the readings. These may just be a taking off point for exploring other possible options. Students could argue for taking no action at all, or for taking very different actions than the readings suggest.
Ask groups to attempt to come up with a consensus about which policy or policies they want to recommend.  If students cannot arrive at a consensus, ask them to come up with their top two preferred strategies. 
Students should then prepare at least 3 arguments they can make to the President in support of each policy they are recommending. 


Reviewing the Options

Reconvene the whole group.  Ask students: How was it to work in your teams? Was it hard to come to a consensus? 
Ask each team for its top policy recommendation. Create a T-chart for each policy recommendation and give it a number and title, as below.  On the left side of the T chart, write "Arguments for."  On the right side, write "Arguments against."  Example:
Recommendation #1: "Address the grievances of local people."

  Arguments for   Arguments against

Develop the pros and cons of each recommendation in turn. Begin by asking one of the groups that made Recommendation #1 for one reason they support this policy, and record the argument on the left side of the T-chart. 
If another group also had this policy recommendation, ask someone from that group to state another argument. 
Continue eliciting arguments for the policy until you have 4 or 5 listed.  Then ask students to review the arguments you've listed.  Ask: What countering arguments are there for this policy?  Elicit and record several responses.
Now move to the second policy recommendation and complete the chart in the same way. Continue until the class has examined the pros and cons of all the top policy options.
Now give students a few minutes to consider each of the T-charts. 
Ask:  What stands out for you when you look at these charts?  Do we all tend to agree on certain policies, or is there a lot of disagreement? 
Ask: Have you yourself changed your view as a result of this discussion? Why? What arguments have affected you the most?
See if the class can arrive at a consensus on one or two policies they would recommend to the President.
If students feel passionately about the issue, work with them to write a letter to the President explaining their view and their arguments.  The letter can be submitted on this Whitehouse comment form.

Alternatively, students may want to submit an article or essay for publication in a school newspaper or other outlet.



Ask students to share one thing that they take away from the discussion today. 


Reading 1:

Excerpts from President Obama's speech

See the President's full address on September 10, 2014 here.
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these [ISIL] terrorists are unique in their brutality.  They execute captured prisoners.  They kill children.  They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage.  They threatened a religious minority with genocide.  And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists -- Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.
So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East -- including American citizens, personnel and facilities.  If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.  While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.  Our Intelligence Community believes that thousands of foreigners -- including Europeans and some Americans -- have joined them in Syria and Iraq.  Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

...  Last month, I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances.  Since then, we've conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq.  These strikes have protected American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory.  These strikes have also helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children. 
But this is not our fight alone.  American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.  And that's why I've insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.  So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.

Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.

First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.  Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we're hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.  Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.  This is a core principle of my presidency:  If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. 

Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.  In June, I deployed several hundred American servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces.  Now that those teams have completed their work -- and Iraq has formed a government -- we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq.  As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission -- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.  But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.  We'll also support Iraq's efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL's control.

Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.  Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.  In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people -- a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.  Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all. 

Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.  Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.  And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.

Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.  This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities.  We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands. 

Reading 2:

Excerpts from "A Plan to Resolve the ISIS Threat without American Bombs"

This plan was released by Win Without War, a coalition that includes American Friends Service Committee, several national religious groups, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee,, and other organizations.   

At moments like this, we would do well to remember Santayana's famous adage: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, we do not have to look far back in our history for the lessons of what does and does not work in confronting the kind of brutal, violent extremism we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria. Exactly 10 years ago, America was in the midst of the Iraq War when violent militants in the city of Fallujah captured four American contractors. The brutality of what followed shocked Americans, as these men were tortured, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
America's outrage and understandable desire to respond to this brutality was met with a massive military offensive, what became known as the first battle of Fallujah. The resulting violence cost dozens of American lives, saw hundreds wounded, and resulted in a stalemate. The insurgents emerged stronger than before the attack.  Subsequent rounds of fighting yielded little better (though America did eventually ‘gain control' of the city) while taking a massive toll on both Iraqi and American lives. Today, a decade later, Fallujah is under the control of ISIS, the successor to the very insurgents we began fighting a decade ago. 
The desire to avenge the horrific executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff and to confront the challenges posed by ISIS to the world is understandable. But our experience in Fallujah is a stark reminder that not all problems are solved with bombs and bullets, no matter how powerful the American military may be.
Instead of going back to war in the Middle East, President Obama should announce alternative, and more effective ways to degrade ISIS. Here are a few suggestions: 
1) Hit ISIS where it hurts: the wallet
One of ISIS's main strengths is its unprecedented access to financial resources. All this money allows it to recruit fighters, purchase weapons, and buy the support of local populations. While some of this financing comes from donors, much of it comes from smuggling illegal oil from fields it controls in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, these fields will need to be retaken by local forces (as the Kurds and Iraqi military have begun to do) but, as we have seen in Afghanistan with our efforts to cut off the Taliban from their opium production and its massive revenues, you cannot address the problem on the supply side alone. Cracking down on Turkish, Iraqi, and other oil dealers who are purchasing the oil on the black market would cut ISIS off from one of its most important revenue streams. Such an effort will require significant international cooperation, hard diplomacy, and likely sanctions, but it could ultimately prove more costly to ISIS than any bomb. Without cutting off the cash flow, ISIS will remain able to replace any weapons we destroy and any militants we kill. 
2) Crack down on ISIS's supply routes and weapons supply
Today, ISIS enjoys something essential to any effective insurgency: the ability to resupply itself. While we often hear about the ability to move supplies between Iraq and Syria, the reality is that ISIS is surrounded on all sides by enemies who can and should do more to cut off its supply routes from the outside. A primary culprit is Turkey, whom America should force to crack down on the flow of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria. While care must be taken to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid, shutting off ISIS's access to the outside world is essential in any effort to confront them. We must also crack down on the flow of weapons to other parties in the region. Well intentioned as they may be, arms transfers to Syrian rebels and the Iraqi military have led to ISIS gaining American-made weapons. If we do not shut off access to these supply routes, ISIS will simply replace any weapons that American bombs destroy.
3) Address the underlying political grievances of local populations
By most estimates, ISIS maintains a fighting force of somewhere near 20,000 fighters, yet the Sunni population in which it operates numbers around 25 million. As with all insurgencies, ISIS cannot be defeated as long as they maintain popular support. Iraqi and Syrian grievances with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus are very real and will take years to fully address, yet ending the Syrian civil war and bringing Sunnis back into the Iraqi political process are essential to driving a wedge between ISIS and the local population. In Fallujah, America was eventually able to convince Sunni tribal leaders to turn against militants through a combination of money and political engagement, the so-called Anbar Awakening. Without a similar effort today, American bombs will only drive Sunnis further into the hands of ISIS and their false claims of ‘protection.'
4) Provide humanitarian aid and assistance
The humanitarian toll of the three-year-old civil war and the instability in Iraq is massive. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced. The lack of access to food, water, and other essential supplies threatens to cost more lives than any bullets or bombs. While America has been a leader in providing aid and assistance, far more is needed. Countless American allies, who stand ready to support any bombing effort, have failed to provide the type of lifesaving aid that is so desperately needed. Failing to address these needs not only directly costs lives, but also helps to feed further radicalization and instability. 
5) Lead a truly multilateral international response
While we have begun to see America lead efforts to bring in international partners to what has been a largely unilateral intervention so far, we must do more to lead a truly multilateral, international response. The challenge posed by foreign fighters with western passports can only be met through cooperation with other countries and international institutions. Our allies like Britain and France must do more to address the underlying issues that have caused so many of their citizens to take up arms with ISIS while also confronting the challenge posed by those fighters when they return home. Similarly, ISIS thrives because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which are fueled by foreign interests. Resolving these conflicts ultimately depends on American diplomacy - not American bombs - involving all the parties including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.