Syria. Ukraine. Gaza. Iraq. Recent international crises have presented the United States with nothing but bad choices in terms of foreign policy, and given President Barack Obama a splitting political headache. Vitriolic criticism of the president’s Middle East foreign policy—or lack thereof—largely glosses over the fact that it is profoundly difficult to lead effectively in times of exigent global conflict. Systemic failures in Iraq and a publicly perceived lack of toughness have inverted the political traction Obama built up by withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq and largely obscured his regional foreign policy successes, argued The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Obama’s task during last night’s prime time address to the nation was therefore threefold: to make the case for military action against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, chart a strategy for U.S. retaliation, and defend his foreign policy history. He succeeded on all counts. Urging Congress to approve a “comprehensive and sustained” four-part campaign to “degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIL, the President employed an appropriately reluctant, stalwart, and above all, somber tone. To ward off criticism that intervention will mire the U.S. in yet another Middle Eastern imbroglio, Obama emphasized that limited strategic operations in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have proven successful and are replicable in the case of ISIL.
Obama also wisely emphasized multilateral cooperation with the Free Syrian Army that opposes the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Iraqi Armed Forces, with the U.S. providing military advisement and air support to bomb regional ISIL targets. In addition to distinguishing a potential security threat to the U.S. in the form of pro-ISIL expats and to U.S. interests in the form of Iraqi destabilization, he rightly called attention to the humanitarian impetus behind intervention. Most of ISIL’s victims to date have been other Muslims.
Nevertheless, questions about the operation’s sustainability and duration endure. How sustainable, for example, is delegating tasks among coalition partners given that, as Chris Woods wrote in Foreign Policy yesterday, Obama has laid out a strategy in which the U.S. continues to serve as Iraq’s “proxy air force”? And finally, even if ISIL is indeed defeated, what implications does its tactics make about the future face of Islamic radicalism? The War on Terror has demonstrated that trying to kill an idea is far easier to propose than to execute.
The Obama plan awaits both Congressional approval and punditry response. No one disagrees that ISIL’s barbarism is incompatible with international standards of civilization. The question of how best to punish its acts of terrorism, however, is less conclusive. If anything is certain, it is that international crises that raise complex questions will yield no simple answers.