If U.S. joins Islamic State fight, how will it get out?

September 10, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won’t be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.

The president is speaking to the American people — not to Congress. He may not even ask Congress to authorize the use of force. Just to fund it. Which they will do because they don’t want to undercut the U.S. military.

Obama’s key audience Wednesday is the American public. For his credibility with the public has gotten dangerously low. Obama was elected in 2008 as the un-Bush — a more thoughtful, less reckless leader. Yet the public always valued President George W. Bush’s resolve and decisiveness — qualities they don’t see in Obama. Qualities they are looking for now.

Displaced people from minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards Syrian border, on outskirts of Sinjar mountainThey see Obama as well-meaning but ineffectual. He doesn’t get results — on the economy, on immigration, on climate change. An ineffectual commander-in-chief is intolerable. That’s why he needs to give this speech.

“I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat,” the president said to Chuck Todd Sunday on Meet the Press, “and how we’re going to deal with it and to have confidence that we’ll be able to deal with it.’’

Will they?  That will be the test.

Obama presents himself as a man of reason. But you can’t reason with a savage force like Islamic State. The public wants to see some fight. So it is already with the president on the need to destroy what Obama calls the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. More than 90 percent of Americans now see this group as a threat to the vital interests of the United States.

Remember the outraged public reaction a year ago when Obama proposed U.S. airstrikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for using chemical weapons against his own people? Then the U.S. public opposed military action in Syria by more than three to one. Now they support military action by four to one. A complete turnaround.

The Islamic State wasn’t even on the radar screen a year ago. Early this year, Obama dismissed them as “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” Now they have grabbed large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, terrorized the local populations and committed unspeakably grisly murders of two Americans. It is the beheadings of two American journalists, presented on carefully produced videos that turned the U.S. public around. It now views Islamic State militants as bloodthirsty fanatics who must be eliminated by force.

Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the ISIL in outskirts of KirkukAmericans are certainly weary after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which resulted in a clear victory. That’s why, despite the public’s revulsion at Islamic State’s brutality, Americans rule out the use of U.S. ground troops. And Obama has vowed not to dispatch any. Americans are OK with air strikes, intelligence support and military aid to local militias. We want to fight this war by technology and by proxy. With no U.S. casualties.

The problem is politics. Mideast politics. The Middle East is in the convulsions of a bitter sectarian war. It’s a war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and also between moderate and extremist factions on each side. In some countries (Iraq and Syria), it’s a civil war. In others (Iran, Saudi Arabia), it’s a potential international conflict.  Terrorist forces in some places (al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas) are threatening to destabilize other places. The complexity is mind-boggling.

In Iraq, Washington is now siding with a newly reconstituted Shi’ite-dominated government that is widely distrusted by the Sunni minority. In Syria, Washington has called for the ouster of Assad’s Alawite government. (The Alawites are a small a sect somewhat related to the Shi’ites, though not all Shi’ites see it that way). But our objective is to destroy Islamic State — a bitter opponent of the Assad regime. That puts us on the same side as Iran and Hezbollah, two leading Shi’ite powers that support Assad — and both enemies of the United States and Israel.

Being on the same side as Iran also runs the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the Muslim world. Washington has enlisted the Saudis in the coalition against the Islamic State, but there’s a lot of support for Islamic State in the Saudi population. Many Saudis have joined the jihadists in fighting for the anti-Shi’ite cause.

Then there’s Turkey, a key U.S. ally. Islamic State fighters are holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage in Iraq. The Turkish government is worried that supporting Washington could endanger the hostages — and anger the Turkish population.

Washington is also arming the Kurdish militia in Iraq to fight against Islamic State militants. The Kurds distrust the government in Baghdad, which the United States supports, and aspire to create an independent Kurdish state. Turkey, which has a large, restive Kurdish minority, would see a Kurdish state as a serious threat.

U.S. President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel confer as they participate in the NATO Summit Leaders? Meeting: Future NATO at the Celtic Manor Resort in NewportComplicated enough? Wait, there’s more. Washington is trying to enlist moderate Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria to fight the radical Sunnis in Islamic State. But many Iraqi Sunnis feel betrayed by Washington because it supported the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

Obama said this summer that arming moderate Sunni rebels in Syria to fight the Assad regime has “always been a fantasy.” Now we want them as our proxies.

Who are our real allies in this fight? And can we trust them to fight Islamic State militants and not each other? This is exactly the kind of political thicket Americans have no tolerance for.

The American people want to win a clear-cut military victory: Destroy Islamic State and go home. As we learned, painfully, in Vietnam and Iraq, the American public doesn’t want to depend on unreliable foreign allies or get involved in other countries’ civil wars.

That’s why many members of Congress don’t want Obama even to ask them for a vote. There’s a midterm election in two months. Democrats don’t want to risk a backlash from their antiwar base. Republicans don’t want to be seen as giving Obama what he wants. Both parties are fearful of voting for the use of force and then being held responsible for the repercussions.

Americans are angry at Islamic State militants, but lashing out in anger is never wise. Two weeks ago, Obama made the shocking confession, “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic State fighters. Does he have one now?

When he addresses the nation Wednesday, he’d better come up with one that’s clear and convincing. Or at least sounds that way.


PHOT) (TOP): President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, during his vacation, August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk toward the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the outskirts of Kirkuk, June 16, 2014. REUTERS/ Ako Rasheed

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Barack Obama (R) and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confer during the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, September 5, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing


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Islam has represented an existential threat to the West since its earliest days. Why in the world would the United States NEED an exit strategy? It NEEDS to stay in the fight until the bitter end.

Posted by StevenPiper | Report as abusive

It’s a blunder.Rebels of Syria are weak to fight IS.Rather all help given to Syrian Rebels will be used by IS.Air power will not be successful in Hilly area.Our boots on the ground are not trained for battle on land.As said above middle east problem is very complicate.It is the fight of Shea and Sunni Insuch complication the best would have been to support Assad whose Army has been successful to some extent.To go against Assad is like inviting Russia and Iran.There will be no end of war like Iraq.Saudis will not budge supporting Sunni means supporting IS.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Coalition troops should be dropped into the areas ISIS occupies, and anybody who shoots back, should be killed. Problem solved. Then you keep enough people there to stop them from coming back.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

I am so tired of Islamaphobes. Global warming is likely an existential threat, but to say the same of Islam is completely mental. And to the commenter who wants to drop troops in the the areas ISIS occupies: How long would you keep them there? How many troops will we need?

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive