General Dempsey: ‘It is possible to contain’ the Islamic State

Is the Obama administration considering a policy of containment with respect to the Islamic State? Yesterday, in a press conference at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that it is “possible … to contain them.” The question and Dempsey’s full answer is below:

Q: General, do you believe that ISIS can be defeated or destroyed without addressing the cross-border threat from Syria? And is it possible to contain them?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Let me start from where you ended and end up where you started. It is possible contain — to contain them. And I think we’ve seen that their momentum was disrupted. And that’s not to be discounted, by the way, because the — it was the momentum itself that had allowed them to be — to find a way to encourage the Sunni population of western Iraq and Nineveh province to accept their brutal tactics and — and their presence among them.

So you ask — yes, the answer is they can be contained, not in perpetuity. This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.

And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.

Q: And that requires airstrikes (OFF-MIKE)

GEN. DEMPSEY: It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military.

Keep in mind that top Obama administration officials have described the Islamic State as “a cancer” (President Barack Obama), “evil” (Secretary of State John Kerry), “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else” (Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel), and “as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen… They’re beyond just a terrorist group …. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess …. They are tremendously well-funded” (Hagel).

Even Dempsey weighed in on the threat posed by the Islamic State. He described it as “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated.”

If the Islamic State poses such a dire, “imminent threat” to the United States, then the nation’s top military official shouldn’t be floating a policy of containment.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: , ,


  • gabriel says:

    Gloves are off!

  • TKYC says:

    How long before officials in the Administration start saying the IS are ‘people we can do business with’?

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Easier for Turkey to let them go through to the rest of the world than to stop them.

  • popseal says:

    The best thing about allowing a caliphate to exist is that it puts plenty of targets close together. Only cowards and naïve fools would willingly allow the cancer of Islamism to exist under the idea that it can be contained.

  • Frank says:

    A policy of containment hypothetically buys the US time to formulate an actual strategy for trying to defeat the Islamic State. The problem with this is that the region is ripe for exploding beyond Syria and Iraq and is already beginning to. The deeper regional players such as Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia go into the battle, the more likely that these places, too, will erupt in violence and regime-threatening attacks – some by the Islamic State, but mostly by those just waiting for the right to revolt. And relying on the Kurds as a ground force to contain them is just plain silly, as the Kurds are not going to hold together as a unified people spread all across regional nations who don’t really trust them as it is. If the US links up with Assad in Syria as many are calling for, even informally, the reaction may not be what US planners envision, either. Contrary to these policy wonks’ belief, the vast majority of people in the region are not waiting for America to come save them. This all smacks of strategic desperation that may soon turn into panic.

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    Dempsey is revealing himself as a spineless tool.

  • chris says:

    anything in the middle east tends to have biblical connatations . Extremes on both sides quote thier book of choice. I hope if we decide to get medevil in this war we can seperate logic from religion. I’m not sure how that will be done in this case, Like fighting a cancer the cure can be as deadly as the illness . This has been a war of generations and it will continue to be. The solution requires Congress to stop taking five week vacations and three day work weeks. Obama must raise the sword and we need a pay as we go war tax and a draft. I’ve seen too many friends and relatives cycle through multiple deployments and fall apart

  • Evan says:

    The real question is exactly what does Gen. Dempsey mean by contained?
    Does that mean gradually wearing them away over time?
    Cause that would require a very big uptick in operational tempo to begin to truly whittle away at them.
    As far as Baghdadi’s ambitions go, it’s only a matter of time,
    before he spreads his cancer to surrounding countries, it’s already happening, and it’s not like their isn’t way too many people at this party already, and it’ll just get bigger and bigger if we allow it to spread, and metastasize.
    If we go in, we have to go all in and ensure that the mission includes defeating IS.
    I don’t think that we should ever work with Assad or the syrians, but at this point, I don’t really see anyone other than the Kurds who we can work with, and it’s just going to take more than that.
    It seems that this fight will be going for a long long time.

  • Rhonda says:

    he did not float the idea, he was asked the question, and his answer was yes. But he did not float the idea. He said they need to be defeated.

  • blert says:

    Dempsey is merely repeating his master’s voice.
    1) The President figures that containment will suffice for the mullah’s atomic program.
    In this, he stands alone.
    Naturally, he is very cagey about his stance. He knows that should he stand tall and give it voice — he’d get brickbats thrown from every point of the compass.
    2) That ISIS would received the same ‘prescription’ from the President is not too surprising.
    He just can’t climb down from his ‘exit’ from Iraq — that’s proving to be no exit at all.
    Indeed, the President is trying to stay out of Syria, too.
    All of his personal priorities are within domestic politics.
    These awkward revelations from Arabia threaten his primary drive to open America’s borders to all comers. He’s rather pressed. Even Hillary, the odds on favorite to obtain the Democrat nomination in 2016 wants the transient ‘orphans’ returned to their parents.
    The President feels that he’s close to turning Texas, Arizona and much else into solid blue voting states.
    And his best buddies in the Muslim Middle East are no longer taking his phone calls. That such a turn has even reached the public ear is pretty astounding. Normal diplomacy hides such personal ruptures.
    Likewise, the President’s phone call with Bibi was leaked to the press — by an AMERICAN staffer. (!)
    That’s weird anyway you want to look at it.
    Jerusalem let the world know that the transcription was accurate — by using the American diplomatic denial — word for word. (Heh) Every diplomat got the ‘joke.’
    Times are tough all over.
    And in other news, Fleet Street is naming the ISIS executioner. By so doing, Britain has put the death mark on him.
    The implication is that the SAS will take him out ASAP. His passport is now a national embarrassment.
    His extended family is sure to feel the heat. Their welfare checks are sure to run into (political) objections. (Bills of attainder are not proscribed in British law. Don’t be surprised if they are applied to Muslim fanatics.)
    In Muslim culture, it’s normal for a family to be punished for the sins of the one.
    This social tick shocked ISAF troops in Afghanistan. The boys just could not get their heads around its (tribal) logic.
    ( It’s a rare British Muslim that is NOT on welfare. Britain has a welfare system far more extensive than America’s.)
    In a tribal culture, the individual is effectively meaningless. (exception: top dog) All serious matters are resolved based upon what figures to be good for the TRIBE.
    This is why it’s routine for family members to execute their own daughters. The honor that’s being preserved is CLAN honor. This is usually pitched to Western readers as being “Family Honor” — which is factually incorrect.
    Even the extended family has to ‘take one for the team’ when clan or tribal honor is at stake. Further, the (social/political) dishonor is focused like a lens upon the Top Dog. This is the source of the fear that drives a family to liquidate a headstrong (and wayward) daughter.
    This ^^^ is such a huge cultural gulf that Westerners just can’t wrap their heads around it. The societies are millennia apart in social norms. It can’t be papered over with Marshall Plan projects.
    Infrastructure enhancements don’t cut it. Strangely, such ‘improvements’ actually make everything WORSE (socially/ culturally/ politically) … rather like funding a compulsive gambler.
    Mankind only drops bad habits and bad ideas through PAIN and LOSS. That’s how humanity is wired.

  • Ben Dere says:

    ISIS, has a very short “Shelf Life”! They’ve become the John Gotti of the muslim brotherhood’s global war. ISIS has become “to flashy”. They’re “to violent” and worst of all, they’ve become “to popular”. Thus, they have to go!
    In their haste for control over the popular vote among jihadists. ISIS has chosen the full auto mode! Thereby usurping the muslim brotherhood’s authority. Upsetting the methodical use of gold and wide spread immigration to suborn their global political powerbase.
    Once ISIS unilaterally announced their Islamist caliphate in Iraq without prior approval from “The Commission”. In this case Mahmmoud Ezzat’s, muslim brotherhood, their fate was sealed.
    Now in the wake of this British Rap Star-turned Jihadist and his beheading of James Foley. ISIS has become the face of global islamist evil and they will be served up, by all parties accordingly.
    The world needs to feel safe, we need a Lamb to Sacrifice. Saudi Arabia also needs to feel safe. The Saudi’s need tone down the world’s anti-Islamist rhetoric. For just like their non religious criminal brethren in la Cosa Nostra. Violence, most assuredly flashy, gratuitous violence is bad for business, and Saudi Arabia’s business…is the distribution of their very own brand of violent Wahhabist domination of the globe.

  • Abu Adam says:

    Very good! I think you’re starting to get it! 🙂

  • Evan says:

    Abu Adam,
    Ah! There you are, I was beginning to wonder if you had been vaporized yet……I guess not. But, don’t worry, you’ll be gone soon enough…
    Hey tell me something Abu Adam, just how dumb are you people? Is there ANYONE with even a fraction of a brain in your organization?
    What’s funny to me is that you troll around here talking about my country like you know anything about us, or that you understand anything about us when it is so painfully obvious that you do not.
    The truth, is that had you “people,” not antagonized my country, not threatened my country, we more than likely would have just left you alone. It was already happening, and we probably would have just let it keep happening,but because you “people,” aren’t smart enough to study your enemy, and to truly know your enemy, it will prove to be your undoing.
    See, the giant was tired and it was already lumbering home, ready to sleep for a bit. But, you guys just had to poke it, so now you’ll reap what you’ve sown.
    Hey you know what else? You seem a whole lot less “confident,” than before, in previous posts, could that be due to the FACT that my country, with an almost imperceptible, flick of its little finger has just shown you cavemen what real power looks like? How many of your brothers have we killed out by the Dam, and around Sinjar?
    We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what our military is capable of, and that’s hilarious, because even then, after only a few days of killing your kind with absolute impunity, you and your people panic, start executing unarmed men with their hands tied, like the cowards that you are, and begging/demanding mercy, like that’s ever going to happen.
    NO, Abu Adam, there will be no mercy, there will be no respite, you think this is bad? Just wait Abu Adam, because we are coming for you and your kind, and we’re bringing our old friend along, you actually know him, intimately in fact, because it’s the only thing that you and your kind have any claim to whatsoever, D-E-A-T-H………..

  • Neil says:

    I’m pretty much done with Iraq.
    Somebody help me out here. Why aren’t the Iraqi’s asking SA, Jordan, Egypt and other “Arab” countries to help go after IS? Turkey should stay out if they can since they are a NATO country.
    If the Arabs are not willing, why should the US be willing? These guys are more a threat to these neighboring governments than us are they not?
    The clear regional understanding should be that the US will provide limited assistance to the Kurds but that’s it. If Iraqi’s don’t want to defend themselves against IS then ask their neighbors for help.
    All we asked from them for as a price for assistance was that they develop a government that includes all the people. They can’t even do that. Frankly, I think the leadership aren’t ready to compromise.
    It’s a “neighborhood” problem and those in the “neighborhood” should solve it. It’s time for the US to take a firm stand and back out. Start emptying the embassy. Many innocent people will continue to die because of poor Iraqi leadership and selfishness. It won’t change until the leadership change their ways or are dead.

  • Vern says:

    “…yes, the answer is they can be contained, not in perpetuity.” Gen Dempsey you do not have a clue about ISIS. Containment is not a solution…it is a band aid that will not hold. Two things need to happen: 1) Form an Arab coalition of pro-west forces (Jordan, UAE) and assist them in cleaning out Iraq towns and cities with back up from US air power and intel. 2) Crank back up Iraq training and reconstitution of their forces. This needs to be a long term affair, not short term pin pricks that will only result in the inevitable strengthening and emboldening of ISIS.

  • deth frum abuv says:

    There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the desire to do something about ISIL and having an actual strategy in defeating them. Containment is very important at this juncture. Slowing down the enemies momentum is critical in allowing the enemies moral to be dissolved. It is ultra-critical to examine how the 2003-2011 operation was conducted.
    The strategy employed in that situation will most likely not work in the current one.
    To deny this fact would be foolish. The United States cannot allow the enemy to dictate the conditions of the battlefield. Remember, the Awakening Councils were critical in turning the tide of the civil war. Those have been neutralized. THAT is why ISIL is so powerful. This is a different war. This fact needs to be recognized if a proper debate on what to do is to be conducted.They dismantled the system built by the allies. Going in there with the same playbook as before would be suicide. Clear. Hold. Build.? Not this time. This problem isn’t getting solved by childish running blindly into a situation with a half-baked plan. We tried that already… in 2003! To deal with ISIL we must have a plan!

  • Elwin says:

    I don’t believe you can contain such an organization, not to mention completely defeating them.
    This is a major problem that needs to be addressed soon, before it’ll become MUCH worse.

  • blert says:

    More news is coming in: ISIS is attempting to use Dawa/ persuasion to get al-Nusrah to join up — man by man.
    Assad is plainly already shifting his assets out of eastern Syria, all together. This withdrawal must surely be in contemplation of the American bombardment which is now certain to come in September. And, Assad is getting strategic direction from Moscow, no doubt.
    In fact, I’d be very, very, surprised if Assad were actually running his military affairs in the field. He’s not practiced in any of the military arts, and was never expected to even be promoted to president by his father. (He’s the back-up.)
    One must guess that the American President is trying to line up Arab dominoes in time for the UN re-opening ceremonies, September 16. Much in the manner of Libya, Barry would like to work collectively — especially under the rubric of saving minorities from genocide.
    Baghdad is taking plenty of time to get its house in order. Al-Maliki has been THAT disruptive. And anarchists have any number of routes towards chaos: VBIED, IED, suicide jihadis….
    Certainly it’s becoming recognized that the old Syrian-Iraqi border has utterly evaporated. It’s just that such a reality is too painful to openly admit. As a result, the Administration is dithering around, hunting for a crisp, explainable policy suite for Syria. That’s going to take some doing: Assad is co-operating with Washington on the matter of chemical weapons disposal, which is still very much underway.
    Yet, Washington hates to admit that Assad is evolving into an inconvenient ‘ally’ as ISIS becomes the over-arching threat. It’s a force too urgent to dance away from. Al-Baghdadi just won’t play the ‘containment game.’
    Even at this late hour, the Pentagon can’t accept that al-Baghdadi is this generation’s version of Napoleon/ Lawrence of Arabia. Yet, such leaders do, in fact, pop up. In the case of Napoleon, now famous, it actually took YEARS for the other European powers to tumble to the obvious: he was something extraordinary.
    Such an institutional denial still clouds the DoD, the CIA, and the National Security Council with regard to al-Baghdadi. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that he has awesome charisma within jihadi circles. Further, that he’s recruiting a mass army, via levée en masse.
    The ceremonial atrocity against James Foley was but a part of the jihadist recruitment campaign. Al Baghdadi is specifically seeking the kind of disturbed souls for whom depraved mayhem is a personal thrill.
    Such twisted souls make for ideal “expendables” — as idealized in the flick: The Parallax View.

    In the above Oscar winning footage, a fictive corporation ( spook front outfit ) is testing “Frady”/Warren Beatty for indications that he’s so mentally disturbed that he’d be their perfect dupe.
    It is plain that anyone with such traits can’t be used in anything other than a suicide operation. Talk about a loose canon!
    Keep in mind that Assassinations — as a systemic tactic — originated in the Muslim Middle East.
    You can bet that the Iraqi generals beat it out of Mosul on the basis of assassination threats. One Iraqi soldier admitted that at least one Iraqi general barely survived an assassination attempt in the days before the collapse of the 2nd Division in Mosul.
    Interesting, no?

  • Mike e says:

    “I’m pretty much done with Iraq”
    This unfortunately sums up the attitude of most low information American voters who are war weary after watching the long war on TV for to long. Will it take another 3000 smoldering Americans corpses on the street to open our eyes again? Sadly I’m not even sure of that anymore. I have even heard it said that “I’m so over 9/11, New York is mostly democrats anyway.” Divided, weak and incompetently lead is no way to be a superpower, or, in fact, even a second tier marginal power.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram