Obama's Next Move Against Islamic State

They can't defeat Islamic State on their own.

In his nationally televised speech last night, U.S. President Barack Obama had two main tasks: Describe clearly the threat from Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and lay out a credible strategy for confronting it. He largely succeeded and now faces a third task, more difficult and important: sustaining the fragile consensus in support of his plan.

Justly criticized for underplaying the threat from Islamic State (an al-Qaeda junior-varsity team, he called them in January), Obama smartly resisted the temptation to overcompensate now. Instead, he began to outline a counternarrative. The vicious Sunni radicals can hardly claim to be "Islamic" after massacring thousands of Muslims, many of them moderate Sunnis. And while they are better armed and funded than any other terrorist group on earth, they are not some new regional power, nor an immediate threat to the U.S.

Even so, the danger Islamic State poses to the region -- and, with its thousands of foreign jihadis, could eventually export around the world -- demands a response. Obama's is wishful and realistic in about equal measure: It acknowledges that this war must be fought mainly by local forces, which have so far proved unwilling or unable to do the job.

QuickTake Al-Qaeda's Heirs

Yet it's difficult to see how deploying U.S. ground forces in any of these places -- where they would inevitably inflame local sentiment -- would be more militarily effective. Certainly it's not a politically or financially sustainable strategy for dealing with the Middle East's ongoing threats. To get around this paradox, Obama's plan leans heavily on increased use of U.S. air power in support of Syrian rebels and Iraqi troops on the ground. One can quibble over whether Obama should have so categorically ruled out deploying U.S. forces, other than special operations forces and military advisers. And one can certainly debate whether similar counterterrorism strategies in Yemen and Somalia can be counted as "successful," as Obama claimed.

The better question is how to make this kind of intervention effective. The plan will only work if the new Iraqi government really does intend to govern more inclusively, allowing Sunnis themselves to take up arms against Islamic State. And airstrikes in Syria, which Obama vowed to launch, will only be effective if various meddling sponsors can cooperate to form a more unified opposition to both President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State. States such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have the closest ties to Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria, will need to rally, train and arm them to fight Islamic State. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and, ideally, the United Nations will need to provide humanitarian aid, help cut off the sources of the terrorists' funding and lend international legitimacy to the effort.

It was gratifying to hear Obama, who has spent perhaps a bit too much time trying to get aspiring powers like China to take up more international responsibility, extol the virtues -- and necessity -- of U.S. leadership. Critics might complain that assembling a coalition is "leading from behind." In fact, it is an extraordinarily challenging task to coordinate and motivate a whole slew of regional players, many of whom are otherwise rivals.

Obama did not minimize this task in his speech, and for the moment at least, he appears to have public support for a full-fledged campaign against Islamic State. He was right to press Congress to affirm its backing as well, in whatever form legislators with one eye on the midterms can bring themselves to phrase it. The challenge will be maintaining that support over the years it will take to degrade and destroy Islamic State. U.S. ground troops should not be necessary to win this battle. U.S. commitment is.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net