It wouldn’t matter that President Barack Obama played golf after responding to the appalling death of journalist James Foley, if he were visibly carrying out a coherent plan to deal with the monsters he so passionately described as a “cancer.” The world, however, can’t see such a plan.
Thursday’s interventions by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, crystallized the problem. The analysis Hagel provided of Islamic State was on the mark:
“They’re beyond just a terrorist group, they marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess, they are tremendously well funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen so we must prepare for everything.”
Dempsey went on to say that Islamic State can only be contained for a period:
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria, the answer is no.”
Yet there the logical sequence stopped. Whether the United States widens its air campaign from one to protect Yazidi refugees, U.S. personnel and the Kurds into one aimed at destroying Islamic State depends on forming a “coalition in the region,” Dempsey said.
I’m sympathetic to Dempsey and Obama: This region is in such turmoil that every decision is horribly complicated.
First, Obama’s instinct that Islamic State cannot be rooted out without the help of ordinary Sunnis in Iraq is correct. Thus, the efforts Obama has been making to get a more inclusive government in Baghdad are essential.
Second, bombing Islamic State in Syria involves crossing more hurdles than bombing the group in Iraq. Either the U.S. would have to work with President Bashar Assad — the architect and primary culprit in a war that the United Nations now says has killed almost 200,000 people — or it will have to attack against his will. That could mean dealing with the anti-aircraft defenses Dempsey has previously cited as a major impediment to intervention in Syria.
Yet it is impossible to avoid the question that simple logic demands: If Islamic State is a terrorist threat the likes of which we have never seen, if it is a cancer that is metastasizing and gaining strength as it acquires the bank deposits and oil fields in its path, does waiting for the stars to align before using air power to roll back the threat make sense?
Indeed, if significantly weakening Islamic State is a necessary U.S. goal, which Dempsey and Hagel have indicated it is, and the U.S. has an invitation from the government of Iraq to extend the air campaign, surely the administration should spell out a policy to match and act on it. And if the job can’t be done without attacking Islamic State in Syria, too, the U.S. should figure out how to do that. It seems at least possible that Assad might agree not to shoot down U.S. or British aircraft as they attack Islamic State bases, if only for reasons of self-preservation.
If a credible framework for that kind of action had been in place, Obama’s return to the golf course might have seemed evidence of a steely resolution rather than a sign of seeming indifference.