Two months ago, President Obama authorized bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq. One month ago, President Obama authorized bombing Islamic State forces in Syria. His plan: couple American air power with indigenous ground forces.
"This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines," Obama said last month, "is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years." I disagree with his use of the adverb "successfully." But Yemen and Somalia are exactly what we’re getting.
Disordered and violent spaces, desultory and pinprick strikes, incompetent and wary allies, determined and implacable enemies—this is the Greater Middle East of Yemen and Somalia, this is the Greater Middle East of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The Islamic State continues to hold territory and make gains. The Pentagon, Rowan Scarborough reports, fears that the terrorist army is planning to capture Baghdad International Airport, using it as a base for urban warfare in the Iraqi capital. In the east, Islamic State forces have laid siege to the Kurdish town of Kobani, held at bay only by a slapdash increase in U.S. airstrikes. "I am fearful that Kobani will fall," General Martin Dempsey said this week. You’re not alone, general. Why don't you do something about it?
I must know better than to ask such questions. Dempsey’s boss, President Obama, is more interested in avoiding the use of large numbers of ground forces than he is in actually seeing the Islamic State defeated. So he leaves the heavy fighting to our "partners." But the partners are confused, inept. They are silent. And the enemy is gaining.
Without large numbers of American troops on the ground in Iraq, we lack the ability to choose targets, to rebuild the capacity of the Iraqi Army quickly and successfully, to constrain the Shiite government from pursuing a sectarian agenda. Without large numbers of troops in Syria, we are unable to distinguish between friend and foe, to train and direct non-Qaeda opposition forces, to address the humanitarian crisis, and to prepare for—and hasten—a world without Bashar Assad.
Without the demonstration of American power and commitment that ground troops represent, allies such as Iraq and Turkey and Jordan and Saudi Arabia will not take the mission seriously. Instead they will interpret the president’s actions as addressing a political problem—the appearance of weakness at home—instead of a geopolitical one—a growing al Qaeda state that serves as the launching pad for jihad near and far.
"People are not convinced that the American strategy is comprehensive and long-term and decisive," said analyst Fawaz Gerges—no neocon he—on MSNBC on Thursday. There is no reason to believe the people are wrong.
The president understands that America is the only country with the reach and power to end global crises. He says as much every day on the fundraising circuit. "On every single issue of importance," he told George Soros and others in New York City on Tuesday, "when there are challenges and there are opportunities around the world, it’s not Moscow they call; it’s not Beijing. They call us."
True. But they seem to be calling less and less.
What Obama fails to grasp: It's not enough to simply take the call. It's not enough to deploy the minimum amount of force—increased airstrikes, detachments to secure government facilities or treat Ebola patients or find Kony—in order to prevent imminent massacres, and to salve guilty consciences. You have to be ready to assume the responsibilities of hegemony, commit to the unpopular necessities in a 30-year-war against jihadism.
Necessities such as long-term bases, overseas deployments, prisons at Guantanamo Bay—necessities such as saying what you mean, so that when you pledge that the United States "will do our part to help" Libya recover from Qaddafi, the help arrives; when you say Assad must go, he goes; when you admit a red line has been crossed, the interlopers pay; when you address the nation twice in two months to announce a campaign against an enemy determined to strike the United States, you treat that campaign with all the seriousness and tenacity and sense of mission it requires.
If only. A future president—and with the way Obama is handling the Middle East, we will be dealing with the Islamic State and other hazards for many years indeed—needs to take a look at the strategic plan devised by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Kimberly Kagan and Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War.
"U.S. forces need to play the role of honest broker once again, as they did in 2007 and 2008," the Kagans wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times. "But they can only play that role if they are present." The Kagans say 25,000 troops are necessary to reverse enemy gains.
Unpopular? For sure. Risky? You bet. The job of a president, however, is not to do the popular or safe thing. It's to do the right thing. And if defeating the Islamic State before it has a chance to strike America is the right thing—and it surely is—then the president must choose the appropriate means to that end.
In September 2003, the Weekly Standard published a cover story calling for more troops in Iraq. The headline was "Accept No Substitutes." More than a decade later, the same rule applies. Until Americans are on the ground in large numbers in Iraq and Syria, until the U.S. government faces the fact that there is no way to defeat the Islamic State without also defeating Assad, our enemies will have the upper hand. And all of us—Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in the Middle East, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in America—will be at risk.