Journalist Michael Gordon’s Degrade And Destroy, The Inside Story Of The War Against the Islamic State, From Barak Obama To Donald Trump can be read as a comparison between how the Obama administration differed from the Trump White House in fighting the Islamic State. President Obama was very cautious in his approach to returning to Iraq and then Syria not wanting American troops to be involved in fighting again. He slowly but surely expanded the U.S. role in the conflict. Trump on the other hand wanted the U.S. to get paid for fighting the war and was easily swayed by others so he flipped flopped several times. What both of them shared however was a general unwillingness to get involved in the Middle East again.
Gordon starts off with President Obama who originally wanted to put Iraq behind him. After Mosul fell in 2014 however he was drawn back in. He started off with sending in a few U.S. troops to only assess the situation not provide any help to Baghdad. It wasn’t until two months after Mosul when the Islamic State attacked the Yazidi minority that American air strikes began. That opened the flood gates to U.S. advisers being deployed along with artillery, rockets and helicopters to help the Iraqi forces and then Syrians. There were caps on the number of troops allowed and authorizing air strikes was a long and arduous process.
Gordon believed that the president was more worried about getting trapped in a quagmire than winning the war. Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq War and thought he accomplished that in 2011 when the U.S. military withdrew. That explains his unwillingness to embrace the fight against the Islamic State three years later. It’s also the reason why he would only allow a few U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria and wanted to keep them out of combat. This time the Iraqis and Syrians were going to do the heavy lifting.
The author points out that Trump said he had a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State but he ended up just expanding Obama’s war and then quickly wanted out. Trump made it easier to call in air strikes against the Islamic State and ended the cap on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria but otherwise he continued with what his predecessor was doing.
Gordon highlights how Trump wanted the U.S. to be paid for fighting the war. He believed that the Saudis promised $4 billion for the conflict and wanted the Gulf States to pay up as well. He told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to collect the money which never happened. The book constantly brings up that the president thought of everything in transactional terms given his business background. This caused headaches for his staff such as Tillerson which disagreed with his approach.
Trump like Obama also wanted out of the Middle East. That allowed Turkey’s President Erdogan to talk Trump into declaring victory against the Islamic State and telling U.S. troops to get out of Syria who were assisting the Kurds which Erdogan wanted to smash. Trump signed the actual the withdrawal order just as the U.S. military was planning the final assault on the Islamic State using Syrian Kurdish forces. The president was then convinced out of withdrawing by ex-General Jack Keane who said the U.S. could take Syrian oil as a payoff which Trump had been looking for. This showed how easily Trump was swayed on issues which caused him to flip flop. That wasn’t the tough guy persona the president liked to portray. Trump was against the original Iraq War and not interested in the Middle East either just like Obama which made him reluctant to continue the fight against the Islamic State in the first place.
Michael Gordon’s book is an inside story of the U.S. war because it mostly represents the ideas of top American officers and officials. You can tell which people he talked to by how many times their names are mentioned in the book. That also means most of The Inside Story Of The War Against The Islamic State is history with very little analysis. The author did make two main observations. One was that President Obama wanted to manage the war rather than win and Trump saw everything as a business transaction to profit from. Despite that their approaches to Iraq and Syria were largely the same. That was because they shared the view that Americans should not be fighting in the Middle East again which put limits on what they were willing to do. Despite that they were able to contribute to the defeat of the Islamic State by providing the firepower to support Iraqis and Syrians.
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