President Barack Obama’s plan for destroying the Islamic State incorporates nearly every strategic option available to the United States – short of sending a large contingent of American troops to fight the terrorist group. Those who criticize the president for not doing enough to combat the Islamic State need to say whether they are willing to send thousands of U.S. forces back to Iraq.
Obama used a rare primetime address to the nation to outline what he labeled “a steady, relentless effort” to root out and destroy Islamic State extremists. He said the group is a serious threat to allies in the Middle East, American interests in the region and, ultimately, the U.S. homeland.
The administration stresses that it is not aware of a credible threat of an imminent attack in the United States. But, the president said, Westerners, including scores of Americans, fighting alongside Islamic State troops could return to their home countries to stage an attack.
The strategy for confronting the terrorists is multi-pronged. Obama plans to enlist forces from other countries in the region, primarily Iraqi and Kurdish troops in Iraq and, more tentatively, moderate Syrian rebels who oppose both the Islamic State and the government of Haffez al Assad.
Obama hopes to help arm and train the Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia indicated this week that it would agree to an American request to provide bases to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters.
The president also plans to continue air attacks on the Islamic State in Iraq and expand the bombing to its strongholds in Syria. Air strikes by manned fighters and drones will constitute the primary U.S. contribution to the effort.
Obama hopes that a coalition of troops consisting largely of regional fighters will confront the terrorists on the ground. Ideally, indigenous troops in Iraq can regain control of territory now occupied by the Islamic State there, while Syrian rebels can use the advantage of U.S. air support to control territory in Syria.
Unstated in the president’s speech was how much help – in terms of money, troops, equipment or all three – might come from neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. Iran allegedly already has sent advisers and seasoned troops to Iraq to bolster Shiite government forces in that country.
The overall strategy, as critics note, might not be adequate to the task of destroying the Islamic State. Air strikes alone might not be enough to rout the terrorists, and there is no guarantee that Iraqi troops will rise to the challenge or that enough moderate Syrian rebels can be mustered in that country to make a difference.
Some question whether true “moderates” actually exist among the Syrian opposition. And there is no assurance that once U.S. air power has weakened the Islamic State that Assad’s federal troops won’t move in and recapture the territory held by the terrorists.
It also is something of a dodge when the president says that this effort “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” He made that pledge Wednesday night while also announcing that he will dispatch nearly 500 more U.S. troops to Iraq to assist security forces there, bringing the total number of American forces sent there this summer to more than 1,500.
All those Americans who are in harm’s way could be classified as combat troops. And that includes all the pilots who will fly bombing runs over Iraq and Syria and their support personnel on the ground.
But we understand and sympathize with Obama’s desire to stop well short of what would amount to another U.S. occupation of Iraq. The president is walking a fine line between appeasing a desire by the American people to do something about the Islamic State while also recognizing that, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public has had enough.
And that is the same dilemma facing those who say Obama is not doing enough to confront the threat of the Islamic State. Are they willing to launch another full-blown U.S. war in the Middle East that could mire this country there for another decade?
Obama has a good record of terrorist hunting. He tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, and decimated the leadership of al Qaida so that it is only a shadow of what it used to be.
The Pentagon confirmed last week that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, was killed in a U.S. air strike inside Somalia. Countless other terrorists have been killed in similar attacks.
U.S. air strikes in Iraq also were effective in rescuing members of a religious sect trapped on a mountain by Islamic State troops and in providing the support needed for Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to drive back Islamic State fighters and regain lost territory.
So, before asking the president to do more to blunt the threat of the Islamic State, let’s see how this plan works.