Hawks wanted him to act sooner. Doves didn't want him to act at all. The rest of us—the ambivalent Americans—wanted President Obama to do something. He did this: persuaded five Arab states to participate in airstrikes against militants in Syria, including an al-Qaida affiliate plotting an imminent attack against the United States.
This isn't dithering. It doesn't look weak. Obama is engaged—finally, and hopefully, for good.
The high-risk campaign comes less than two weeks after a prime-time address in which Obama announced that he had ordered an expansion of the fledgling military campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. After dismissing ISIS less than a year ago as a "JV team," Obama watched the militants seize broad swaths of Iraq and Syria—and spent months deliberating with his national security team while critics, including myself, demanded action.
On Monday night, the U.S.-led coalition struck buildings occupied by Islamic State leaders, along with training sites, supply lines, and arsenals, according to the The Washington Post, which cited a U.S. military official. Separately, American warplanes launched eight air strikes to disrupt the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaida affiliate that, according to U.S. officials quoted by the Associated Press, planned to attack the United States and Western interests.
Among many unanswerable questions stemming from the attacks is whether acting sooner would have made the ISIS strikes more effective.
Another: Did the delay buy Obama time to build a coalition of five Arab states, which the AP's Julie Pace called "an unexpected foreign policy victory"? More important, what exactly will be the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar?
"The new coalition's makeup is significant because the United States was able to recruit Sunni governments to take action against the Sunni militants of the Islamic State," wrote Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt of the The New York Times. "The operation also unites the squabbling states of the Persian Gulf."
ISIS can't be eradicated from the air, and Obama has unwisely announced to the world that he won't let the United States be dragged into a ground war. That means his coalition is only as good as the ground troops it produces. Thanks to the Pentagon and U.S. taxpayers, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE have well-equipped and well-trained militaries. Will they deploy any troops against ISIS? Will voters in France and Britain, no less war-weary than the U.S. public, allow their leaders to follow Obama into the Middle East?
My final question goes to Obama's plan to arm Syrian rebels, action long sought by GOP and Democratic hawks, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just a few weeks earlier, Obama had dismissed the notion that Syrian rebels could be an effective force as a "fantasy." Nobody at the White House has adequately explained when and why fantasy became policy.
All of these questions remain relevant, as do doubts about the president's plans and his leadership skills. In the months and years of fighting ahead, the answers will come, and the doubts addressed. In the meantime, Obama's critics, including myself, should give the president's plan a chance to work. Criticism is fine and fully American, but the bar is a bit higher—the benefit of doubt a bit deeper—when the commander in chief deploys troops.
We should root for the president and his success, because there are no easy answers in the Middle East. There is no obvious right way or wrong way to face a threat like ISIS, which makes any decision ripe for failure—and Obama is the guy we picked to make these choices.
Good for President Obama. I hope the mission is successful.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) September 23, 2014
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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