The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four questions about Obama’s Islamic State strategy

President Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House on Sept. 10, 2014, vowing to target the Islamic State “wherever they exist.”  European Pressphoto Agency/Saul Loeb/ Pool
Placeholder while article actions load

After a pre-speech rollout campaign that surpassed any of Obama’s other foreign policy initiatives in recent years, we finally arrived at Obama’s speech ostensibly outlining a strategy against the Islamic State.  Apparently there will be a lot of degrading and destroying.

Rather than summarize the key points of the speech or stress its key takeaways, let’s talk about what was not in the speech.  I watched Obama’s address with a set of questions that I was hoping the president would tackle. He didn’t, so let’s ask them here:

1) Exactly how big a threat is Islamic State to the United States? Public opinion polls suggest that Americans are freaking out a bit about Islamic State, or ISIL as it is known. But in statement after statement after statement, U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials acknowledge that the Islamic State lacks the capability to hit at the United States. So why the big hubbub?

Obama’s explanation:

ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.

Eh, that’s still not enough. There are lots of actors out there who threaten the U.S. without specific plots. What makes the Islamic State so worrisome? Why a primetime speech to address Islamic State, but not, say, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula?

To be clear, I think there’s a possible answer to that question. It’s just that Obama hasn’t provide it yet.

2) Which allies will assist in degrading and destroying Islamic State? The president asserted that, “America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.” The only partner he mentioned by name was the Iraqi government. So who else will be contributing support? Saudi Arabia? Turkey? What about Qatar? Any NATO allies? Specificity matters here. Which countries in the region are prepared to commit real resources to fighting the Islamic States?

3) How will the Islamic State campaign play out in Syria? The Iraq portion of Obama’s speech made enough sense, even though he might have been wishcasting the virtues of the post-Maliki government. But the strategy in Syria is way more opaque. According to Obama:

Across the border in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.

But as Obama has repeatedly averred, he doesn’t put much faith in the Free Syria Army. So how exactly will “ramping up” play out? Will other forces be involved? What if the newly armed opposition decided to take the fight to Syrian President Bashar Assad first? What if Assad exploits fighting between Islamic State and the FSA? How will we respond?

4) How will the campaign against Islamic State intersect with other U.S. interests in the region? The administration is also committed to ejecting Assad’s government from Syria and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Where does combating Islamic State fall in the hierarchy of U.S. preferences? It’s true that, for the moment, a variegated set of interests are united in defeating Islamic State. But that can change. What are the tradeoffs between defeating Islamic State and cutting a deal with Iran? This is the question that keeps David Frum up at night.