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.


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.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.