Does the U.S. Have a Strategy to Defeat ISIS?

By | February 14, 2015

[February 14, 2015] There has been a lot of criticism and compliments, especially over the past few days, of the U.S. President’s strategy to defeat the Islamic terrorist organization known as ISIS. For purposes of better understanding what strategy is about, I would like to work through a few ideas to better understand why some of it is confusing and where there are some misunderstandings.

One of the biggest problems in discussing strategy is many people assume that others have the same meaning of the word. Of course, as leaders we know this is not true and that even small nuances in the meaning can make a large difference in discussions on such topics of national importance. This is the case here. To illustrate, the term “strategy” is used to denote different things and it has layers of meaning depending on its context.

Grand strategy (also called high strategy or national strategy) is the purposeful employment of all instruments of power available to a nation to achieve a political objective. Thus it is much more than use of military might but also diplomatic, economic, and informational power.1 In addition, any strategy does the following:

  • Prioritizes objectives & goals
  • Aligns resources
  • Provides a guide for all activities
  • Clarifies the unknowns and risks
  • Establishes a realistic end-state

What the United States does not have is a grand strategy to defeat ISIS – at least one that can be clearly articulated. Whether the U.S. strategy itself will be successful is impossible to determine because of the confusion it brings to anyone trying to understand it. Ashton Carter, as the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense, could not intelligently explain the strategy to the U.S. Congress (in hearings on his confirmation).2 Furthermore, the end-state is defined in terms that have multiple and conflicting meanings. It also fails to do those things listed above as a necessary component of a winnable strategy.

At a recent U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing on Islamic extremism, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn said the strategy does not prioritize international threats and does not clearly define the enemy.3 Flynn said that you cannot defeat an enemy you refuse to admit exists. This is why, he notes, one of the main reasons the strategy is failing.

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu, the Art of War

I would argue that the main reason the current strategy is confusing is that it is not comprehensive enough to deal with the threat of all terrorism and specifically fails to clearly lay out a guide for activity associated with fighting Islamic terrorism – the most immediate terrorist problem. Thus, we have a situation where we have a lot of military tactical actions occurring without a cohesive strategy.

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[1] A more complete discussion of grand strategy can be found in a 4-part series called “Leadership and Grand Strategy” found here at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

[2] Ashton B. Carter was just confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the next Secretary of Defense:




Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.