Why Obama Must Back Up His Tough Talk Against ISIS With Action

Military analysis.
Aug. 20 2014 7:01 PM

Obama’s Next Move

The president just described ISIS as a threat to civilization. Now he must back up those words with action.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Aug. 20, 2014.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

With his speech on Wednesday condemning ISIS in newly stark, determined language, President Obama now needs to step up his military campaign in equally dramatic fashion.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

That does not—and should not—mean sending American ground troops or taking steps that give even the whiff of an American-led war.

Still, Obama described ISIS—the al-Qaida offshoot that now calls itself the Islamic State—in ways that demand further action and will later seem bizarre if they’re followed by merely more of the same.

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The radical jihadists of ISIS, he said, have “rampaged across” Iraqi and Syrian villages, “killing innocent, unarmed civilians,” and subjecting women and children to “torture and rape and slavery.” Their religious garb is a ruse, as they have “murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands” and massacred those of other faiths without qualm. Their declared ambition is “genocide.” Their ideology is “bankrupt,” offering their subjects nothing but “endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.” And now, they have beheaded an American journalist, an act that “shocks the conscience of the entire world.”

Obama noted that friends and allies around the world “share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite” of what ISIS has been doing. “From governments and peoples in the Middle East,” he added, “there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” For “one thing we can all agree on,” he declared, is that a group like ISIS “has no place in the 21st century.”

All forthright, all true. But the president of the United States can’t talk like this and then do nothing additional to “extract the cancer.” What is President Obama’s plan for action? Here he turned vague. We “are taking the fight” to ISIS, he said, and will “do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” But we’re already “taking the fight,” and it’s understatement to say this fight is about “justice.”

At one disturbing point, Obama indulged in sentimental rhetoric. “People like this ultimately fail,” he said of the ISIS fanatics. “They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.” First, that isn’t true. The annals of history show that destroyers beat builders often. Second, this sort of talk is dangerous: If you really believe there’s some universal path to history, where good ultimately triumphs over evil, you can trick yourself into thinking it’s all right to do nothing because, in the end, all will turn out well.

I don’t think Obama really believes in historical idealism. He usually talks and behaves like an international realist. He well knows (and eloquently said, in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address, of all places) that when builders do win out over destroyers, it’s often because the builders fight back.

Since Aug. 8, when he first authorized military action, Obama’s commanders have launched 84 airstrikes against ISIS positions, and the numbers are rising. Airstrikes alone accomplish little, of course, but the key thing about these strikes is that they’ve been coordinated with assaults on the ground by Iraqi special forces, Shiite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. That combination is what forced ISIS to retreat from the Mosul Dam. And while the Iraqis and Kurds squabbled afterward over which of them deserves the main credit, it is remarkable—maybe unprecedented—that they cooperated in a ground campaign against a common enemy at all.