PRESIDENT OBAMA again appeared to dismiss the conflicts of the Middle East at a fundraiser Friday, saying the region has “been challenging for quite a while” and that “things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” That may or may not be a valid analytical point, but it is not one the U.S. president should be making, as was brought vividly home when a video apparently depicting the brutal beheading of another American journalist was released Tuesday by the Islamic State.
The barbaric murder of Steven J. Sotloff gave Mr. Obama another opportunity to lay out a U.S. strategy for combating an organization that is more powerful and more ambitious than al-Qaeda before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Speaking Wednesday in Estonia, the president was slightly stronger and clearer than before. But his strategy — he now insists that one exists — still has some big holes.
Mr. Obama finally acknowledged that the Islamic State is “a very serious threat not just to Iraq but to the region and to U.S. interests.” He said his objective is “to degrade and destroy” the terrorist entity “so that it’s no longer a threat” — an improvement on his previous, cramped pledge to “make sure that [the Islamic State’s] gains in Iraq are rolled back.”
The president correctly pointed out that U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have succeeded in pushing back the terrorist forces and saving several communities from annihilation. His assessment that “a regional strategy” is needed “that can support an ongoing effort not just in the air but on the ground” is exactly right. Sadly, he is probably also justified in predicting that the job “is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition.”
What’s missing is not only, as Mr. Obama acknowledged, “the military strategy inside of Syria,” where the Islamic State controls a swath of territory. The administration also has yet to clarify which nations or forces it believes should participate in a coalition, who will supply the ground troops that will be needed to defeat the terrorists and what role the United States will play. Will Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, which are also enemies of the Islamic State, be in or outside the alliance? What if Iraqis are unable to form the “inclusive” government Mr. Obama is demanding? The president rightly said last week that a necessary step is “to stabilize Syria in some fashion.” How should that be done?
Easy answers don’t exist, but Mr. Obama ought to be guided by several principles. One is that the terrorist threat can be neutralized only by combating all of the forces destroying the region: That includes Assad’s criminal army as well as Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Fostering a representative and non-sectarian government must be the aim in Syria as well as Iraq. But political breakthroughs should not be a precondition for military measures. On the contrary: The starting point for achieving those political goals is providing the region’s beleaguered moderate forces — which include the government and militia of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Free Syrian Army — the substantial and sustained support they need to fight their enemies on an equal footing.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Obama should stop attempting to minimize the threats in the Middle East or the U.S. role needed to combat them. Without American leadership in forging political solutions and assaulting the Islamic State’s strongholds, any strategy is doomed to fail.
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