President Obama’s spoke last night of “the international community,” “a broad coalition of partners,” and “bipartisan support … here at home.” He’ll need all of that, and more, for the anti-ISIS mission to succeed. (More)

President Obama on ISIS: “This Is Not Our Fight Alone”

Historians and pundits too often individualize events. They write of “LBJ’s Civil Rights Act,” “Clinton’s Budget Surplus,” and “Bush’s War” in Iraq. So it’s hardly surprising that headline writers are already calling it “Obama’s War on ISIS.”

But President Obama rejected that simplistic frame in his speech last night:

But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.

The anti-ISIS campaign isn’t simply not his own, the president emphasized. It’s not even our nation’s alone. He continued:

First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.

That will likely include airstrikes in Syria, he warned.

This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.

He specified the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish troops, an Iraqi National Guard, local Sunni militias willing to fight ISIS in Iraq, and Syrian rebels willing to fight ISIS there.

Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into – and out of – the Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.

The U.S. will also provide humanitarian relief to civilians who have been and are being “driven from their ancient homelands.” And again he emphasized that all of this will require a cooperative effort:

This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners. Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq; sending arms and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian opposition; sharing intelligence; and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and supporting their efforts to promote unity, and in the coming days he will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands. This is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom; and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.

My Administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

Indeed some constitutional scholars insist that congressional approval will be required for the mission to be legal. But President Obama did not promise to withhold action until and unless Congress acts, perhaps because he knows that many House Republicans would rather sit in the back of the room and lob political spitballs. So much for that “bipartisan support … here at home.”

Indeed President Obama already faces objections: from neoconservatives who say he doesn’t take ISIS seriously enough, from expelled conservatives who say he’s reacting emotionally rather than engaging in measured realpolitik, and from libertarians and others who say he’s bought into or even helped fuel an over-hyped response to a non-threat.

And there have been mixed messages on the threat posed by ISIS, with intelligence officials denying immediate danger to the U.S. while the media raise alarms about non-existent sleeper cells and ISIS agents bring Ebola over the Texas border.

Still, ISIS rebels killed over 5000 civilians in Iraq in the first six months of this year, and they’re helping to sustain a civil war in Syria that has killed almost 200,000 people in three years. We can debate whether the horrific murders of two U.S. journalists constitute a reasonable casus belli, or whether we’re being baited into putting troops into ISIS’ reach. But there is no debate on whether ISIS killers threaten innocent civilians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere across the region.

Nor is ISIS as ephemeral a target as Al Qaeda and other such groups:

To contain Isis, you must understand its resources – of fighters and ammunition, fuel and financial support – that allow Isis to flourish. Then, cut those off, essentially turning the organization inside-out to kill it. But you must put safeguards must in place to ensure the fire does not, in effect, re-flash the moment you look away.

Not mentioned in that list of resources is a record of claiming and purporting to govern identifiable territory. ISIS had pledged to establish a caliphate across the Levant, and its campaign thrives on the public impression of military victory. But there are already governments and other groups seeking influence in the regions ISIS claims, and that means ISIS has a long and growing list of enemies.

So while Juan Cole and others argue that President Obama’s real strategy is defensive – to contain and chip away at ISIS’s territory rather than spearhead a full-fledged invasion – that seemingly-limited approach may be precisely the best way to cut off ISIS’s most important resource: the myth of invincibility. How many new fighters will leave their homes to huddle in a static or shrinking perimeter, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, Turkish, and other troops, and pounded from the air by U.S. and allied airstrikes?

If President Obama can help coordinate a sustained, international effort – and that alone will be no easy task – historians and pundits may one day write of “Obama’s victory over ISIS.” But that would be as falsely simplistic as other individualistic narratives … and last night President Obama made clear he recognizes that basic fact.

Which puts him light-years ahead of people who say ISIS would never have happened if they’d been running things. Just sayin’.


Happy Thursday!