The United States has never faced a foreign enemy as simultaneously amorphous and potent as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Middle East force of Sunni militants has declared itself a state without borders. It is so ill-defined that there’s confusion about what to call it. Is it ISIS, as the media generally call it? Or, as President Obama calls it, ISIL, for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant? Or, as the militants themselves now call it, simply the Islamic State?
Yet there’s nothing vague about its impact. The militants emerged battled-hardened from Syria’s civil war and swept across a large swath of Iraq. They’ve killed Iraqi prisoners, imposed severe Islamic law on captured cities and beheaded two American journalists in videos that have horrified and repulsed the world.
Now Obama has announced a plan to confront this shifting and spreading menace before it engulfs Iraq, further destabilizes the Middle East and attempts terror attacks on Europe and the United States.
Obama’s plan is well-conceived and carefully calibrated to balance between an enemy that is ruthless and a U.S. population that is war weary from long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president will not commit U.S. troops to combat in Iraq nearly three years after he withdrew the last of U.S. forces at Iraq’s request. Blunt military force would only sink the United States back into the quagmire of a region split along centuries-old tribal and religious divisions.
“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” the president said in an address to the nation Wednesday night.
What the president will do is send 475 more U.S. military advisers to Iraq to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide a base for the training. The U.S. will also use airstrikes by jets and drones to attack ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Obama has drawn together a true coalition of countries to confront, contain and eventually choke ISIS.
“What we can do is systematically roll back the organization, shrink the territory where they’re operating, decimate its ranks, cut off its sources of support in terms of funding and equipment, and have the threat methodically and relentlessly reduced,” he said.
If President George W. Bush and his saber-rattling advisers had been equally careful, the U.S. would have waited for inspectors to complete their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and report that there were none. Instead, they blasted their way into Iraq, deposed the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, unleashed long-repressed tribal and religious tensions and created the chaotic and bloody conditions into which ISIS emerged and has thrived.
That history makes it especially galling that authors of the Iraq War such as former Vice President Dick Cheney are criticizing the president’s efforts and urging a “stronger response,” whatever that is. These neocons who have learned nothing from history aren’t just doomed to repeat it. They’re eager to repeat it.
It’s also discouraging to hear North Carolina’s Republican Sen. Richard Burr and the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, House Speaker Thom Tillis, use the president’s announcement of his plan as an opportunity to criticize his handling of the ISIS threat.
“I believe that if the president had taken decisive action to address this threat in its infancy, we would not be facing the extremist army that is overrunning Iraq today,” Burr said. Tillis said the Islamic State was “growing stronger each day because of President Obama’s failed foreign policy and lack of leadership.”
These comments are foolish. Republicans have no alternative way to combat the threat. Such criticism is also contrary to the nation’s interests. When a president moves to confront an enemy of the United States, he deserves a period of nonpartisan support. There will be time enough to judge the U.S. response to ISIS, but for now the president has set a careful and promising course.