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In the past two years a new terrorist threat appeared in the region of the wider Middle East. The inflammatory ideology and excessive brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant served as a reminder to the United States that the terrorist threat was far from over. The Obama Administration quickly realized that due to the unstable situation in Iraq, ISIL had the potential to directly threaten vital American interests. A brief summary of statements from top level executives of the Obama Administration illustrate this point:
“The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to U.S National Security. If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.”[i]
“ISIL poses a grave threat to Europe, the United States and our friends and allies around the world because of it steady metastasis and its evil intentions.”[ii]
“I could go on and on. ISIL is a destroyer and it is threatening to take actions against America, Canada, Mexico, against countries all around the world. So ISIL is a modern threat that we have to respond to.”[iii]
In addition to the views from top executives a recent poll by the CNN showed that over 60 percent of Americans perceive ISIL as a very serious threat. According to the study “overall, 68% say ISIL is a very serious threat, compared with just 39% who say so about Iran, 32% about North Korea, 25% on Russia and 18% on China. Nearly 9 in 10 see ISIL as at least a moderately serious threat.”[iv] In August 2014 the Obama Administration, in response to the threat of ISIL, launched an open-ended bombing campaign against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Iraq.”[v] Moreover, in September the Obama Administration expanded the attacks to include ISIL targets in Syria.[vi] In a statement President Obama asserted; “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."[vii] The statements from the President and top level executives of the Obama Administration raise three critical questions on the perception of United States officials and policy-makers regarding the threat of ISIL, the policies that they implemented in order to counter this threat, and the goal they were trying to achieve. These are:
- Is the threat of ISIL politically relevant for the Obama Administration?
- Out of the announced official policies, which ones did policy-makers favour?
- What was the goal of the United States when dealing with ISIL?
The first question aspires to assess the level of importance of the threat of ISIL for the Obama Administration. As it is evident from the statements, President Obama and members of the cabinet recognized the potential danger of ISIL. What we want to assess is how widespread both horizontally (top level executives), and vertically (throughout the executive branch) this perception was. More importantly, we want to assess how the views of the Administration regarding the threat of ISIL fluctuated over time. The second question relates to the salience that American policy-makers ascribed to the policies implemented by the Obama Administration. Lastly, we must assess the goal of the Administration, as it is important to highlight the drive behind the policies of the Administration.
In order to assess empirically these questions a database was constructed of all documents mentioning the terms “ISIS”, “ISIL”, and “DAESH” from the Obama Administration from June 2014 to December 2015. The majority of the documents were press briefings, transcripts of speeches, and readouts and remarks from officials such as President Barrack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry among others. I then analysed the database qualitatively and quantitatively to determine American foreign policy views in reference to ISIL. According to the findings of the analysis the threat of ISIL was politically relevant for the executive branch of the Obama Administration. The policies which American officials favoured were air strikes, enabling indigenous ground forces, impeding financing, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters and others which are listed below. Lastly, the goal of the Obama Administration was to “degrade and destroy ISIL.”[viii]
To assess empirically the perception of Government Officials and policy-makers of the threat of ISIL a database of all uses of the term was generated, based on documents collected using the built-in search engine of the White House, Department of Defence, Department of State, and CIA web pages. A search utilising the terms “ISIL”, “ISIS”, and “DAESH” yielded 698 documents (339 from the White House, 152 from the Department of Defence, 203 from the Department of State, and 4 from the CIA) covering the period from October 2013 to December 2015. The collection represents all the publicly available documents from the four major foreign policy agencies of the Executive branch of the Obama Administration mentioning the terms ISIL, ISIS and DAESH.
The documents were then coded to fit the criteria of the questions set in the beginning of this article. Regarding the perception of the threat of ISIL out of the 698 documents, 413 were coded as “Missing Data” and removed from the database. Regarding the policies and goal of the United States; out of the 698 documents 348 were coded as “Missing Data” and removed from the database. Items were removed from the database for one of the following reasons:
- The document was a duplicate of another document in the database.
- The document did not mention explicitly the threat of ISIL
- The terms of the search were used by someone not in the government. This occurred most commonly when a reporter used the terms as part of a question.
Each valid document was then content analysed for terms associated with the threat of ISIL, the policies favoured by United States officials when dealing with ISIL, and the goal of the United States.
The salience of the threat of Isil in American Foreign Policy.
Initially, the task is to determine whether or not the threat of ISIL is politically relevant for most American policy-makers. To examine this, I qualitatively analysed statements by policy-makers of the Obama Administration which assessed the level of criticality of the threat. The following table shows the number of statements relating to the direct threat of ISIL for the United States by Speaker.
Table 1 Frequency of the statement regarding the "threat of ISIL" by Speaker
In order to assess the level of criticality attached to the threat of ISIL, the documents were first coded with regard to who within the Obama Administration uttered the statement. Table 1 presents a list of speakers and the number of documents. As is evident from the table, the threat of ISIL has reached the highest levels of the Administration. The fact that principals of the foreign-policy community such as the President and the Secretaries of State and Defence account for a combined 59% of all references suggests the significance of the perceived threat of ISIL within the hierarchy of US policy-making. Having established that the threat of ISIL has been noted at the highest levels of American policy-making, it is relevant to ask how significant it was, and whether it warranted their attention. The following statements from President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defence Asthon Carter exemplify their perception regarding the gravity of the threat of ISIL.
“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 the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland ISIL leaders have threatened American and its allies.”[ix]
“We all know that Daesh is a threat to America’s security and interests. It poses an unacceptable danger to our personnel and facilities in Iraq and elsewhere. It seeks to destroy both the short and long-term stability of the broader Middle East. And it is exacerbating a refugee crisis that has placed extraordinary economic and political burden on our friends and allies in the region.”[x]
“ISIL is an extremist, violent movement which threatens America and needs to be defeated. And we’re working on accelerating its defeat.”[xi]
In addition to the criticality of the threat of ISIL in the perception of United States policy-makers, it is worthwhile to assess how this threat evolved over time. To examine this, I performed a frequency count on the data, aggregating the number of statements per year. The results are summarized in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 Number of Statements referring to "the threat of ISIL" by Year
Stemming from the table, the threat of ISIL appeared on the statements of American policy-makers in June 2014 as a result of the Northern Iraq Offensive which began on June 5 2014. A series of attacks from ISIL and aligned forces captured several cities and other territory, beginning with an attack on Samara on June 5 – followed by the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit on June 10 and 11 respectively.[xii] By late June, Iraq had lost control of its borders with Jordan and Syria.[xiii] This caused a major concern to the Obama Administration, as is evident in the sudden increase in the number of statements. The number of statements skyrocketed from August to September, mostly due to the administration announcing its decision to initiate an air campaign against ISIL; first in Iraq in August and secondly in Syria in September. The number of statements somewhat stabilized in October and November while the United States outlined its strategy to deal with the threat of ISIL. However, from December 2014 the number of statements gradually declined until the November 2015 attacks in Paris. These results support the contention of the importance of the threat of ISIL for the Obama Administration.
Policies associated with the threat of ISIL
Having established the significance of the threat of ISIL for the United States, the next goal is to assess the salience that American policy-makers ascribed to the policies outlined by the Obama Administration in order to counter the threat of ISIL. On November 2014 President Obama unveiled the strategy of the United States against ISIL, which included nine lines of effort.[xiv] These are:
- supporting effective governance in Iraq;
- denying ISIL safe-haven;
- building partner capacity;
- enhancing intelligence collection;
- disrupting ISIL finances;
- exposing ISIL's true nature;
- disrupting the flow of foreign fighters;
- protecting the homeland; and
- humanitarian support.
In order to assess the salience that American policy-makers ascribed to these policies, and assess whether they were the only policies they were considering, I performed a frequency count on the data – aggregating the number of times these policies were mentioned. As expected, the military strikes gathered the most attention from American policy-makers. Equally important policies were enabling indigenous ground forces in order to “bring the fight to ISIL”, and disrupting the financing and flow of foreign fighters. In summary, the statements from American officials and policy-makers regarding air strikes revolved around their goal to “severely hamper ISIL’s movement and systematically eliminate the groups leadership.”[xv] Regarding the involvement of indigenous ground forces, statements from American officials highlighted the fact that it was the only long term solution for the threat of ISIL.[xvi] More importantly, it appears through the statements that the United States officials perceived that enabling ground forces would enable them to avoid the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter “our strategy, you recall, is that we've learned from our 14 years in Iraq and Afghanistan that in order to have a lasting defeat, the lasting defeat of ISIL, we need to think ahead to what comes after they're defeated and to make sure they stay defeated. That's the reason why we work with local forces, try to get them motivated, and try to get them capable.”[xvii] Lastly, regarding the efforts of the United States to impede the flow of financing and to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters’, statements from American officials asserted that in order to defeat ISIL it is imperative to damage their ability to finance their operations and fill their ranks with foreign fighters from all over the world. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter encapsulated this argument by asserting that “we said from the outset of this campaign that to defeat ISIL, we're going to have to take away his ability to resource himself and we're going to have to curb the flow of foreign fighters coming into the theatre.”[xviii] Through the analysis I identified one additional policy which was not included in the strategy outlined by the Obama Administration, but was frequently mentioned from policy-makers. That policy was the political transition in Syria, which means that the Obama Administration considered Assad as part of the problem with ISIL and asserted that his removal would benefit the cause. The results are presented in Table 2.
Table 2: Policies Associated with countering the threat of ISIL.
As it is evident from the table, the salience that American policy-makers ascribed to the strategy outlined by the Obama Administration to counter the threat of ISIL varied significantly. As expected, the military campaign against ISIL gathered the most attention from policy-makers. Equally important was, for the United States, to enable indigenous ground forces – mainly Iraqi security forces and Kurdish and Syrian opposition. Two separate motives guide this policy on behalf of the United States. The first was to “bring the fight to ISIL” and the second to avoid sending American troops. The Obama Administration vehemently opposed any operations, which included the deployment of American troops. Disrupting the flow of foreign fighters and the finance network of ISIL was another policy which the Obama Administration perceived as important. Another indicator of the limited exposure that the United States was trying to achieve when dealing with ISIL relates to the fact that they were adamant about creating a coalition in order to deal with the threat. Additionally, the Obama Administration understood that part of the solution was for Iraq to overcome its domestic political strife and form a cohesive government. The Obama Administration was committed to helping Iraq in this process. Another important policy was to counter ISIL’s poisonous ideology wherever it manifested. In order to halt the advance of ISIL it was important to deny parts of Iraq or Syria from becoming safe havens. The next two policies might appear somewhat similar; however, they are qualitatively different. For American policy-makers, political transition in Syria warranted the removal of Assad as a potential solution to the problem. By contrast, assisting moderate opposition forces in Syria related to providing military and financial support. Due to the nature of ISIL, intelligence collection was a daunting task; hence the Obama Administration prioritized enhanced intelligence collection. Humanitarian assistance related to providing relief to victims of ISIL’s brutality. Lastly, the final policy of the Obama Administration related to protecting the homeland in the event of an attack.
The United States’ Goal
The third and final part of this article relates to the goals of the policies of the United States in its fight against ISIL. According to the analysis, the primary goal of the Obama Administration was to “degrade and destroy” ISIL. In their statements American policy-makers were adamant about their goal to eradicate the threat of ISIL. In order to systematically evaluate the perception of American policy-makers regarding their goal, I performed a frequency test on the data aggregating the number of times American policy-makers mentioned this goal. The results of the analysis corroborate the fact that the discussion regarding ISIL had reached the upper echelons of the Obama Administration. The only difference is that the statements are even more concentrated in the top executive branches of the Administration. The number of statements from the President, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State account for 65% of the total. It is important to clarify that this doesn’t mean that the cabinet members, such as the Vice President or the National Security Advisor, had different goals because they mentioned the goal of the United States less often. It simply shows how frequently some members of the Obama Administration referred to the goal of the United States as opposed to others.
Table 3: Frequency of Statements regarding United States Goal
American policy-makers clearly consider ISIL as a threat to vital security interests both in the region of the Middle East and at home. According to the findings of this article, the perceived threat of ISIL has reached the top of the hierarchy within the Obama Administration. Furthermore, regarding the policies of the Administration, the findings suggest that the most salient policies for American policy-makers were the military air strikes, to enable indigenous ground forces in the region of the Middle East, to fight ISIL, and to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters and finance networks. However, it is clear through the statements that the United States was not willing to deploy any sizable forces. More importantly, an additional policy was identified, which was not included in the strategy adopted by the Obama Administration, but gathered significant attention from policy-makers. According to the findings, the Obama Administration perceived the political transition from the Assad regime in Syria as necessary in the fight against ISIL. Lastly, the overall strategy of the United States served one goal, which was to “degrade and destroy” ISIL. This is important to highlight, due to the fact that, as the analysis shows, it came directly from the top executives of the Obama Administration.
In conclusion, the analysis of public statements from key officials is frequently criticized on grounds that they don’t always reflect the true intentions of the speaker or that they are not necessarily followed by actions. In order to respond to this criticism, it is worthwhile to assess whether there is any relationship between the statements of the Obama Administration to the actions they undertook to counter the threat of ISIL. According to the analysis, during August and September 2014 the number of statements regarding the threat of ISIL reached its highest value. During this time the Obama Administration declared its “Anti-Islamic State strategy”, and launched its first strikes in Syria against the Islamic State and the Khorasan Group. Moreover, Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, which authorised the Department of Defence to appropriate 500 million US dollars in order to assist Syrian groups opposed to ISIL. Similarly, in November and December 2014 the Obama Administration authorized the deployment of 3000 additional troops in Iraq as part of its long-standing mission to train the Iraqi forces. These examples highlight the fact that there appears to be a positive correlation between the frequency of the statements on part of the Obama Administration and the actions they took. Of course, this could be merely coincidental. Or perhaps there could be additional reasons which impacted on the threat perception of the Obama Administration, and expedited the need to take action against the threat of ISIL. However, the findings of this article corroborate two things. Firstly, that the threat of ISIL reached the upper echelons of the Obama Administration, and secondly that elite threat perception was at least one of the reasons which guided the actions of the Administration in its goal to counter the threat of ISIL. This opens up new directions for future research regarding the analysis of public statements concerning the formulation of foreign policy on behalf of the United States. The systematic analysis of public statements can have significant contribution in future research projects due to their availability. Whilst we must accept that they do not necessarily reflect the speakers’ true intentions, we can be certain that they reveal at least a glimpse of their perception regarding the matter at hand. This is particularly useful in the case of the United States, due to the fact that an abundance of information is publicly available.
[i] President Barrack Obama, "Letter from the President -Authorization of Use of United States Armed Forces in Connection with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," news release, February 11, 2015.
[ii] Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, "Remarks at Atlantik Brücke: "U.S., Germany, & Nato Are Moving Forward Together"," news release, June 22, 2015.
[iii] Secretary of State John Kerry, "Joint Press Availability with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev," news release, October 31, 2015.
[iv] Jennifer Agiesta, "Cnn/Orc Poll: Isis a Bigger Threat Than Iran, Russia," CNN Politics April 22,2015., http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/22/politics/cnn-orc-poll-isis-iran-russia/, accessed in 24/02/2016
[v] Mark Landler and Alissa J. Rubin Helene Cooper, "Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on Isis," The New York Times August 7, 2014., http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/08/world/middleeast/obama-weighs-military-strikes-to-aid-trapped-iraqis-officials-say.html, accessed in 15/02/2016
[vi] Paige Lavender, "Obama Authorizes Airstrikes against Isis in Syria," Huffington Post September 10, 2014., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/10/isis-obama_n_5800320.html , accessed in 15/02/2016
[viii] President Barrack Obama, "Remarks by the President after Meeting with Chiefs of Defence," news release, October 14, 2014.pp.2
[ix] Barack Obama, "Statement by the President on Isil," ed. The White House(Washington D.CSeptember 10,2014).pp.2
[x] Secretary of State John Kerry in Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Isil, December 9, 2014.
[xi] Ashton Carter, "Joint Press Briefing by Secretary Carter and Minister Parrikar in the Pentagon Briefing Room," ed. U.S Department of Defence(Washington D.CDecember 10, 2015).
[xii] Onwar.com, "Northern Iraq Offensive June 2014," https://www.onwar.com/aced/chrono/c2000s/yr10/iraqoffensive2014.htm., accessed in 18/02/2016 "Iraq Crisis: Militants 'Seize Tikrit' after Taking Mosul," BBC News June 11, 2014., http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27800319, accessed in 18/02/2016
[xiii] "Northern Iraq Offensive June 2014".
[xiv] Frederic C.Hof, "Countering Isis: Obama Administration Strategy," Atlantic Council November 12, 2014., http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/countering-isis-obama-administration-strategy, accessed in 19/02/2016
[xv] Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, "Secretary of Defense Speech in American Legion National Convention," news release, September 1, 2015.
[xvi] Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, "Department of Defense Press Briefing with Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, Chief of Staff, Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve Via Dvids from Southwest Asia on Operation Inherent Resolve," news release, August 21, 2015.
[xvii] Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, "Discussion with Secretary Carter at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Harvard Institute of Politics, Cambridge, Massachusetts," news release, December 1, 2015.
[xviii] Secretary of State Ashton Carter, "Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, Macdill Air Force Base, Florida," news release, January 14, 2016.