Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: To defeat Islamic radicals, Obama needs to do more

WASHINGTON

With his speech condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in newly stark, determined language, President Barack Obama now needs to step up his military campaign in equally dramatic fashion.

That does not — and should not — mean sending American ground troops or taking steps that give even the whiff of an American-led war. But Obama described the ISIS in ways that demand further action and will later seem bizarre if they're followed by merely more of the same.

Obama noted that friends and allies around the world "share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite" of what ISIS has been doing. For "one thing we can all agree on," he declared, is that a group like ISIS "has no place in the 21st century."

All true. But the president of the United States can't talk like this and then do nothing more. What is Obama's plan for action? Here he turned vague.

At one disturbing point, Obama indulged in sentimental rhetoric. "People like this ultimately fail," he said of the ISIS fanatics. "They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy."

First, that isn't true. The annals of history show that destroyers beat builders often. Second, this sort of talk is dangerous: If you really believe there's some universal path to history, where good ultimately triumphs over evil, you can trick yourself into thinking it's all right to do nothing because, in the end, all will turn out well.

I don't think Obama really believes in historical idealism. He well knows that when builders do win out over destroyers, it's often because the builders fight back.

Since Aug. 8, when he first authorized military action, Obama's commanders have launched 84 airstrikes against ISIS positions, and the numbers are rising. Airstrikes alone accomplish little, of course, but the key thing about these strikes is that they've been coordinated with assaults on the ground by Iraqi special forces, Shiite militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

That combination is what forced ISIS to retreat from the Mosul Dam. And while the Iraqis and Kurds squabbled afterward over which of them deserves the main credit, it is remarkable — maybe unprecedented — that they cooperated in a ground campaign against a common enemy at all.

In June, when Obama sent 300 "advisers" to Iraq, many misunderstood its significance. Their task was to set up a "joint operations center." That involved assessing the military balance on the ground, scoping out ISIS positions, and re-establishing relations with the best units in the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga. These joint operations are what caused the ISIS setbacks of recent days.

That is the model for what Obama should, and almost certainly will, do in the coming weeks and months — except that, given the (justifiably) raised stakes of Wednesday's speech, he should intensify the effort and widen the coalition.

In recent days, ISIS has come under attack by military forces of not just the United States and Iraq but also Iran, Syria and possibly others. I don't know if there has been any behind-the-scenes coordination among presidents Obama, Hassan Rouhani and Bashar Assad, or their emissaries — but if there hasn't, there should be, and if it's been kept secret, it should be laid out in the open.

If the jihadists of ISIS are as dangerous as Obama says they are (and the evidence suggests they are), then it's time to plow through diplomatic niceties and pursue the common interests of nations with which we otherwise might not get along. Yes, it's politically awkward, to say the least, for Obama to make common cause, even on this one issue, with Assad (a monster whom he once said "must go") and the mullahs of Tehran (most of whom regard America as the "great Satan"). But in World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill joined with Stalin to defeat Hitler — and, if they hadn't, Hitler would have won.

The fighters of ISIS aren't ragtag hooligans, but they're not Hitler's Panzer Corps, they're not Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, they're not even the Taliban. The fight isn't a cakewalk, but it doesn't have to be a huge struggle, if the Western politicians can get over their complexes about working with certain bad people in order to defeat even worse people.

Fred Kaplan is the author of "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War" and "1959: The Year Everything Changed." © 2014 Slate

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