U.S. plays Islamic State whack-a-mole

In the beginning there was Operation Overlord. Then came Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Now the fight against the Islamic State has introduced a new concept into modern warfare. Call it Operation Whack-a-Mole.

“If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole,” the president said Monday afternoon at the end of a Pentagon news conference at which he addressed developments in Syria and Iraq.

As a military matter, what Obama said was true: The United States can’t possibly fight terrorists by swinging a mallet at them wherever they show their heads. And yet that has been the U.S. strategy in Syria and Iraq – fighting militants with 5,000 targeted airstrikes but doing little to solve the overall threat. Technically, the Islamic State fight is called Operation Inherent Resolve – but Whack-a-Mole gets closer to reality.

Obama did little to punish the Syrian regime when it crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons.

He made things worse for himself last month when, after a meeting with world leaders, he admitted that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the Islamic State.

When the White House put out word that the president would make a rare visit to the Pentagon, press secretary Josh Earnest was quick to tamp down expectations of a grand new strategy.

Obama, after his session with the top brass, offered a bit of a pep talk, using another name for the Islamic State: “ISIL lost at the Mosul Dam. ISIL lost at Mount Sinjar. ISIL has lost repeatedly across Kirkuk province.”

Whack, whack, whack.

Obama did provide the outlines of a comprehensive strategy. He acknowledged that there can be no solution without a new government in Syria. He spoke of more support for anti-Islamic State forces. He spoke about the group’s threat metastasizing beyond the region.

But he said little about what he’ll do specifically. Re-engage with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to negotiate a solution to the Syrian civil war? Boost the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army? Establish safe zones in Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey?

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain fired off a statement saying that “none of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success.”

Perhaps, but Obama deserves credit for talking about the necessary elements of a strategy and for ignoring extreme voices on the left that would have him retreat.

“What should we do if the Islamic State wins? Live with it,” was the headline atop Harvard professor Stephen Walt’s piece in Foreign Policy last month.

Walt suggested a policy of containment, “patiently waiting for its excesses to undermine it within.”

Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas, a Washington correspondent for the BBC, had a rejoinder to such naivete with her own piece in Foreign Policy last week.

“If you’re hoping that over time the Islamic State will mellow and become an acceptable member of the system of nations, think again,” she wrote.

The sports-minded Obama spoke Monday of the danger of small-cell terrorist attacks inspired by the Islamic State: “We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks.”

Game on. But let’s stop playing whack-a-mole in Syria and Iraq.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post.