President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief. Much of his address was about attitude — we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda — don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! — and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.
But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.
His Iraq case is easier to address. Baghdad has a new government that may be capable of rebuilding its security forces and enlisting the cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and some Sunni tribes in Anbar province.
This is more a hope than a reality at this point. But it is crucial that an Iraqi presence on the ground be ready to confront Islamic State forces — especially when the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, comes into focus. It was the loss of Mosul, after all, that made these militants look so threatening, and it will be Mosul’s recovery that could signal Islamic State’s first major reversal of fortune.