A new crisis in the Middle East has forced President Obama into a delicate balancing act. His speech on Wednesday was an effort to reassure Americans that he will do everything possible to crush the Islamic State terrorist group — while at the same time keep the country out of war.
Much criticism of Obama’s supposed foreign policy weakness stems from the fact that he seems cool when we want him to panic. In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said Communism posed “not only the gravest threat ever faced by the United States, but the greatest threat that has ever faced what we call Western civilization.” More recently, President George W. Bush told Americans that the 9/11 attacks represented a threat so enormous that we had to plunge into foreign wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. That is how some Americans want Obama to depict the ISIS threat. He refused to do that.
Instead he spoke in measured phrases, recognizing the emergence of a new danger but not exaggerating it. Rather than warn of mortal peril, he said he was “more confident than ever about our country’s future.”
Perhaps he would mobilize the nation more fully and win bigger headlines if he warned, like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, that ISIS terrorists might be sneaking across the Mexican border at this very moment. Instead of pledging to “roll back” the ISIS threat, he might have promised to pursue every militant to the gates of hell, starting tomorrow. That kind of rhetoric plays well in DC.
It also makes presidents more popular. Obama could probably win points in opinion polls by telling Americans that we are in imminent danger. Instead he said only that ISIS “could pose” a threat in the future. He called not for a massive attack but a “steady, relentless effort” to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group.
Obama also said he would act following “consultations” with Congress — not after asking its permission. That may provoke muttering in Washington and a vote might still happen, but, in reality, if it didn’t that would be a relief to most members of Congress. They don’t want to vote for war in case it goes badly, or against it lest they appear weak. In their hearts, nearly all are happy to let Obama take the political risk.
Besides tipping his hat to a confused Congress, Obama reached out to foreign allies. He reminded Americans that “this is not our fight alone” and that only a “broad coalition” will be able to crush ISIS. This was encouragingly realistic, but Obama did not face the implications of what he said.
During World War II, the United States judged Nazism to be such a great danger that it was willing to form a military alliance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most prolific mass murderers. If ISIS is a truly serious threat, we should work with all who hate and fear it. Obama said he will support the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, which has every reason to fight ISIS because ISIS believes in killing all Shiites. He did not take the logical next step of suggesting some kind of cooperation with the only other Shiite-run country in the world: Iran. Nor did he dare point out that the odious President Bashar Assad of Syria also considers ISIS a mortal threat, and is even more eager to fight it than we are.
If the United States wants to place eradicating ISIS at the top of its Middle East priority list, it will have to hold its nose and work not only with Sunni tribes, but also with inconvenient allies like Syria, Iran, and Shiite militias. We refuse to do so because although we want to crush ISIS, we don’t want it badly enough to upset other relationships in the region. So this is not really an all-out fight in which we are using all resources at our disposal.
Obama was right to tell Americans that the United States “cannot erase every trace of evil from the world.” That challenges ideas of American power that are part of our collective psyche. Yet too many of our interventions in the Middle East have been aimed largely at fixing the messes left by our previous interventions. Obama signaled that he wants to pull the United States out of that cycle.
Our next president will almost certainly be angrier, more aggressive, and — above all — more disposed to shout and threaten in ways that stir our combative patriotism. Obama might be doing that himself if he faced reelection. Liberated from electoral pressure, he does not feel the need to respond to the relentless news cycle. That frustrates some in Washington, but we are all safer for it.Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.