Reality impinges on Obama's Middle East strategy [Commentary]

The president's long range approach to ISIS may set his legacy

September 15, 2014|By Jules Witcover

The strategy President Barack Obama has laid out to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the new Middle East terrorist peril reveals him as a man divided between combating the immediate threat and persevering in his determination get this country off "a perpetual war footing."

In clinging to his insistence that there will be no more American "boots on the ground," he is committing himself and the nation to a military compromise that adheres more to public preference than to the comprehensive approach dictated by the Pentagon.

His strategy of pounding the Islamic State wherever it is found, in Syria as well as in Iraq, requires sophisticated ground-guidance to critical targets by trained personnel in or out of American uniform, who may not meet the semantic definition of military boots on the ground.

Mr. Obama's diligent pursuit of an international alliance to meet the manpower and materiel needs of the effort also risks resembling the disingenuous "coalition of the willing" cobbled together by former President George W. Bush for his ultimately disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, the incubator for much of what has followed in the region.

Yet to be true to himself, and to take into serious consideration the war-weariness at home, Mr. Obama has settled on a course that may carry the best hope for dealing with the current convoluted situation. The immediate question is whether the strategy will be muscular enough to bring a dysfunctional Congress with him, not only in providing the money but also the public solidarity that marked the response to the 9/11 attacks and the early 2003 "victory" in Iraq.

No lightning results of the sort that the "shock and awe" air and ground assault on Baghdad delivered are likely to bring a "mission accomplished" moment.

Rather, Mr. Obama is setting in motion a long-term mission of eradication that invites ups and downs that can impede optimism and compromise his basic objective of getting America out of the war business during his presidency. His new strategy thus is a recognition that reality has intruded on his major foreign policy aspiration and has required him to yield to it.

In doing so, Mr. Obama has elected not to call for a new specific vote in Congress authorizing expansion of its 9/11 use-of-force approval for military actions against Syria, claiming the original authorization sufficed. But such a call, almost certainly to be granted in the end, would have brought a constructive debate on Capitol Hill on Mr. Obama's war policy, and possibly taken the air out of Republican opposition and sniping.

Politically, the Republican blame-game, which until recently had clung to attacks on the administration's confusing response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, is already shifting to Mr. Obama's 2011 pullout of American combat forces from Iraq.

After the president's televised explanation of his new strategy against the Islamic State, Republican Sen. John McCain renewed his assault on the premature withdrawal. He did so in a withering CNN drubbing of former White House press secretary Jay Carney, making his debut as the latest official mouthpiece turned "senior political contributor" to the cable network.

Mr. McCain hammered the hapless Mr. Carney as he tried to play defense on Mr. Obama's failure to achieve an agreement with Iraqi former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on maintaining a residual troop presence there. Mr. Carney may be a free agent now, but he continued to play his old role throughout.

Now comes the hard slogging for the Obama administration in which the instant gratification that first greeted Mr. Bush's reckless invasion of Iraq seems unlikely to be replicated by his successor's more measured and conditional approach to the unanticipated residue.

In Mr. Obama's 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he made a defense of the concept of the just war, which he can reasonably argue he has decided to enter on the grounds of long-range self-defense against this newly sprouting terrorist offshoot of al-Qaida. It now looms as the greatest challenge of his presidency, and to a positive legacy.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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