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.

Back in June, when Obama sent 300 “advisers” to Iraq, many misunderstood its significance. Their task was to set up a “joint operations center.” That involved assessing the military balance on the ground, scoping out ISIS positions, and re-establishing relations with the best units in the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga. These joint operations are what caused the ISIS setbacks of recent days.

That is the model for what Obama should, and almost certainly will, do in the coming weeks and months—except that, given the (justifiably) raised stakes of Wednesday’s speech, he should intensify the effort and widen the coalition.

As Obama said in his speech, the thugs of ISIS have murdered Sunnis and Shiites; they are hated and feared by nearly all Arab and Muslim governments and militias in the region. So, Obama (or the United Nations or European Union—any front group will do) needs to bring all the enemies of ISIS into an explicit coalition.

In recent days, ISIS has come under attack by military forces of not just the United States and Iraq but also Iran, Syria, and possibly others. I don’t know if there has been any behind-the-scenes coordination among Presidents Obama, Hassan Rouhani, and Basher al-Assad, or their emissaries—but if there hasn’t, there should be, and if it’s been kept secret, it should be laid out in the open.

If the jihadists of ISIS are as dangerous as Obama says they are (and the evidence suggests they are), then it’s time to plow through diplomatic niceties and pursue the common interests of nations with which we otherwise might not get along. Yes, it’s politically awkward, to say the least, for Obama to make common cause, even on this one issue, with Assad (a monster whom he once said “must go”) and the mullahs of Tehran (most of whom regard America as the “great Satan”). But in World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill joined with Stalin to defeat Hitler—and, if they hadn’t, Hitler would have won.

The net against ISIS should be widened further. A good model here is the 1990–91 Gulf War, in which Presidents George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker assembled a vast coalition to push Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. Nearly every Arab country in the region—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, even Syria—sent whole armored divisions or air wings. Many of them didn’t do much in the war, but the important point was that they were there. Their presence demonstrated that this wasn’t a war of Western imperialists against Muslim Iraq; it was a multinational war against aggression.

Bush and Baker considered this absolutely essential to the war. It’s also essential today. That tends to be forgotten by the neocon hawks pushing Obama to send tens of thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq to fight ISIS. First, the Iraqis don’t want tens of thousands of Americans to return. Second, if the fight against ISIS looks like the revival of a U.S. war in Iraq, foreign jihadists will flood the place, and the new Iraqi government—which we’re pressing to be inclusive—will back away.

Baker had to do nonstop shuttle diplomacy to maintain the coalition against Saddam. Assembling joint operations against ISIS should be easier. First, though ISIS has a lot of weapons (mainly captured from Iraqi deserters), it’s not a crack army; it has made very little headway since the first couple weeks of its rampage. Second, at least for now, many of its soldiers continue to fight in large formations, out in the open desert—ripe targets for airstrikes. Third (and this is an essential point), ISIS has no allies among nation-states.

The fighters of ISIS aren’t ragtag hooligans, but they’re not Hitler’s Panzer Corps, they’re not Saddam’s Republican Guards, they’re not even the Taliban. The fight isn’t a cakewalk, but it doesn’t have to be a huge struggle, if the Western politicians can get over their complexes about working with certain bad people in order to defeat even worse people.

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