Islamic State Demands a New Obama

To defeat Islamic State, President Obama needs a vote from Congress.
Ready to lead from the front?                       

Tonight President Barack Obama will make his case to the country for a new and possibly far-reaching military entanglement in the Middle East -- a challenging task in any circumstances, but especially for Obama, because this isn't an argument he wanted to make. Up to now, the guiding theme of his security policy has been disentanglement.

So he has some explaining to do. In one way, his reluctant-warrior stance helps. Nobody can accuse him of rushing into battle. It also helps that Islamic State, the new threat, is an unusually clarifying kind of opponent: ambitious, organized, implacable and savage. There's not much ambiguity about Islamic State.

QuickTake Al-Qaeda's heirs

It's already a quasi-state with an army, too formidable to be dismissed as posing no plausible danger to the U.S. or its interests. And there's no prospect of bargaining with it. The choices are to leave it alone, let it gain strength, tally the atrocities, and see what happens; or move to suppress it. Remarkably enough, even after everything we've learned since 2003, the second course seems more prudent.

Islamic State is a unifying kind of opponent, as well. It's pleased to butcher almost anybody. Partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have already formed an anti-Islamic State coalition. There's little danger this will be seen as an anti-Muslim coalition, or one that favors one sect over another: In Iraq, Islamic State has given moderate Sunnis and Shiites a common purpose. In Syria, strengthening Bashar Assad might be thought an unwanted side-effect of attacking Islamic State, but he'll likely be weakened instead, because he'll lose support among people who fear Islamic State more than they fear him.

In fact, this new enemy is dangerous and despicable enough to make justifying the use of force, especially in concert with others, almost easy. It might be harder, in political terms, to justify standing aside and doing nothing. That's why the real test for Obama isn't to explain why expanded airstrikes against IS are needed right now, but to build support for a prospect he's previously set his face against -- sustained military involvement, with no end-date.

To make this work, he doesn't need to change everything his critics like to complain about. It's good to be reluctant to fight. It's good to be cautious and methodical, and to think things through. He's been derided for seeming to suggest that "Don't do stupid stuff" amounts to a strategy. Actually, there's a lot to be said for not doing stupid stuff. More elegantly expressed as "First, do no harm," it has a nice ring to it.

Several things, though, do need to change. First, having thought it all through and concluded that action is necessary, he needs to make the decision, own it, and stake some political capital on its execution. This doesn't seem to come naturally.

Second, he needs to stop talking as though foreign-policy problems can be solved on fixed timetables -- as though U.S. withdrawal from Iraq drew a line under something, or U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan can be declared another success, regardless of what comes next. A swift victory over Islamic State is unlikely. The fight may go on in one form or another for years. And sometimes problems like this can't be solved at all -- they can only be managed.

Obama is right to seek allies, both to share the burden and to demonstrate the legitimacy of U.S. action. He should demand strong backing. He might even be right to say that the U.S. can't or won't act alone. But the notion of leading from behind must go. The U.S. is the only country capable of building and directing a coalition that can confront Islamic State with any prospect of success. Leading and being seen to lead are still part of what a U.S. president has to do.

Obama is right, as well, to want public and Congressional backing for a scaled-up fight. In calling for that support, he ought to be honest about the risks and the possible costs, and should say how he hopes to contain both -- yet be unequivocal, once his mind is made up, about the need to bear them. You can't lead a nation, any more than an alliance, from behind.

On balance, I think he'd be wise to demand a vote in Congress authorizing, in effect, a declaration of war on Islamic State. True, he might ask and be rebuffed, as he was over military intervention in Syria. This is different in two vital respects. The case for military action against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is stronger than it was for intervening against Assad: Islamic State poses a bigger danger to the U.S. and its allies. Second, because that's well understood, there's more support for action against Islamic State both at home and abroad.

Still, given the risk that Congress might withhold its backing, maybe Obama shouldn't even ask. After all, say some, the kind of action he's contemplating -- airstrikes rather than boots on the ground -- isn't really war and doesn't require authorization as a matter of law. That's a puzzling distinction. If you're dropping bombs on me on a fairly consistent basis, I'll consider us at war. In any event, a sustained airstrike campaign requires soldiers on the ground to provide intelligence. Military advisers and special forces are already engaged.

Suppose for the sake of argument that authorization isn't legally required: Regardless, lack of formal Congressional support would inhibit the prosecution of the fight. As James Kitfield argues, it would incline the U.S. to be piecemeal and reactive, as it has been so far -- making its actions fit the tenuous claim that they're for humanitarian purposes, or to defend U.S. personnel, or to satisfy some other legal rationale, rather than part of a deliberate military strategy to destroy an enemy.

The administration would be denying Congress's moral (if not constitutional) right to join in the decision; or, to put it another way, it would be helping Congress fail in its duty to decide. This is a momentous decision that needs to be confronted squarely. Obama, Congress and the country as a whole should all sign on.

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