It’s been nine months since the Islamic State took Fallujah, and President Obama shrugged off what should have been a fire-bell in the night.
In his notorious JV-team interview with the New Yorker, the president explained away the capture of Fallujah as not particularly alarming, since it is “a profoundly conservative Sunni city.” Now the Islamic State commands a swath of Iraq and even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls it “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” The president himself has sounded steadily more serious about the Islamic State, culminating in last night’s prime-time speech announcing a campaign to destroy it.
This is better than the willful indifference the president has exhibited to the rise of the Islamic State and the fate of Iraq and Syria for years. But it would be more credible if President Obama could bring himself to acknowledge his profound error in “ending” the Iraq war — i.e., abandoning it to its worst instincts and actors when he was bequeathed a fragile stability there. And if he weren’t so determined to circumscribe the anti–Islamic State campaign, comparing it to the highly limited, terrorist-plinking campaigns in Somalia and Yemen.
Strip away the stalwart rhetoric, and what the president described last night is a continued small-scale bombing campaign (probably extended to Syria), coupled with another announced effort to aid Syrian rebels who are perhaps more congenial to us. (The administration has said it would provide this aid to Syrian rebels before, but with little follow-through, and bizarrely, as of a few weeks ago, the president himself poured scorn on the idea.) He made a point of ruling out combat forces on the ground, a restriction that will likely jeopardize the success of the mission.
The extremely constricted air campaign so far has had some effect, in stopping the Islamic State’s push in Kurdistan, in liberating the Mosul Dam, and in breaking the siege of Amerli. But none of this has involved expelling the Islamic State from major population centers, which will be necessary if it is to be truly defeated. It was relatively easy to hit fixed, exposed Islamic State positions around the Mosul Dam. It is another thing to fight the Islamic State in the city of Mosul itself, and other cities in Iraq and Syria.
That will almost certainly require special operators working closely with indigenous forces on the ground. In Iraq, we will have to rely on some combination of the pesh merga, the Iraqi army, and — importantly — local Sunni tribes. The latter will be much more welcome than Kurdish forces or the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army in the Sunni heartland, where the Islamic State is strongest. But all these forces will presumably require vetting and advising of the sort that can’t be properly done from a distance.
This especially holds true in Syria, where the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds, and other local forces are potential allies on the ground. We have long advocated aiding the relatively moderate Syrian opposition and thought it was a mistake to abandon Syria to the Sunni extremists on the one hand and the Iranian-backed killers around Assad on the other without attempting to create a cohesive fighting force more favorable to our interests. (As it turns out, Assad didn’t really fight the Islamic State, but tried to wipe out the rest of his opposition first, so the West would feel compelled to side with him against the terrorists.) But we aren’t romantics about the Free Syrian Army, either. It has its own extremists and its capability as a fighting force is in doubt. It is not a turnkey outfit.
We fear a campaign exclusively from the air will mean essentially a holding pattern, which is consistent with the leaks from the administration about the campaign against the Islamic State potentially taking three years — in other words, lasting beyond President Obama’s time in office and falling to his successor.
If the president’s resolve is in doubt, Congress isn’t covering itself in glory, either. The president asked Congress to authorize his program to aid the Syrian rebels. We would go further: It would be an important statement of national will, a strong signal to our allies, and an act of democratic accountability if Congress voted for military action against the Islamic State in a strong, clean authorization. Instead, Congress has been ducking, in keeping with the belief of too many of its members that their role is to carp from the sidelines without ever taking any responsibility themselves.
It is an axiom of politics that if you will the end, you must will the means. It is good that our political class, both Democratic and Republican, is demanding action against the Islamic State. What the administration has done to push the Iraqis toward a more inclusive government and to forge a small coalition of the willing abroad is commendable. But there is no substitute for America’s unstinting resolve to win this fight, and for the commander-in-chief’s total commitment. No wonder even the administration is floating the idea that the fight will have to be won by the next president.