Opinion

opinion | David Gergen

With ISIS fight, Obama regains confidence

President Obama spoke Wednesday at the UN Security Council.
Brendan McDermid/Reuters
President Obama spoke Wednesday at the UN Security Council.

PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY was fond of quoting two characters from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” The first, Glendower, says, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” To which Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?”

To Kennedy, that was the essential leadership challenge for any president: Whether through power and influence, he can call forth others, mobilizing them in the pursuit of great enterprises. Some have — think Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. And some have not — Woodrow Wilson, for example, after World War I.

Just last week, President Obama’s call for a united front against terrorists in the Middle East seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.

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After his prime-time speech to the nation Sept. 17, his team sowed wide confusion with a series of muddled messages. Experts and even his former top cabinet members worried aloud about his plans. Newspaper editorial writers were critical. A gulf reportedly opened between the White House and Pentagon generals. The rollout began to recall the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website.

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Public opinion polls brought more unhappy news. Barely a third of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, and half deemed his overall presidency a failure. Even Jimmy Fallon weighed in: A Chicago public school had decided not to name itself after Obama. Too many parents, Fallon joshed, didn’t want their kids to go to a school where they didn’t do anything for eight years.

Well, what a difference a week makes!

In a series of surprises, the president has risen to the challenges of leadership in ways that have transformed the early stages of this military campaign. The administration had hinted that air attacks against Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Syria were still weeks — if not months — away. With a reluctant warrior in the White House, who could know for sure whether the attacks would be tough enough. Which allies would go with us?

And then, boom! The United States unleashed a withering barrage of missiles and bombs, apparently catching ISIS by surprise, and best of all, accompanied by forces from five different Sunni nations.

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Coming on the eve of nations gathering at the United Nations General Assembly, the attacks suddenly gave muscularity and credibility to Obama. He quickly took advantage of the moment, delivering a speech at the General Assembly that was one of the most forceful of his presidency. Gone was the ambivalence of so many of his military actions — this time he was all in.

He even went where American presidents fear to tread: He called out friendly Arab nations that use oil profits from buyers abroad to secure peace at home. Those funds often go to the religious extremists who export more radical interpretations of the Muslim faith, spreading the seeds of Al Qaeda and ISIS. That was a gutsy move by Obama, and it had the virtue of being the right thing to do.

By the end of the General Assembly, walking amid the UN delegations, one had a distinct sense that Obama had emerged as the dominant figure there. More importantly, other nations seemed to welcome a reassertion of American leadership. (The leaders of China and Russia didn’t help themselves by skipping the meetings this year.)

None of this power burst ensures long-term success, of course.

Destroying ISIS, especially in Syria, remains an extremely difficult goal. Our bombs can scatter the militant fighters, but we are at least a year away from having “moderate” rebels in Syria vetted, trained, and equipped for follow-up ground fighting. The country’s tyrannical leader Bashar Assad is surely licking his lips at the prospect that he can gobble up territories vacated by ISIS’s departure. We have already fought a war in Iraq in which Iran was seen by many as the winner. Will we now fight in Syria and make Assad the winner? So many hard questions, and twists and turns, still lie ahead.

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Even so, this past week has been an important breakthrough. One doesn’t have to like Obama or the war he is now launching; there are plenty of reasons to be against both. But when the United States sends men and women into harm’s way, it is essential that we have a commander in chief who commands respect, and a nation that is solidly behind its troops.

And the president and his war plans appeared finally to get that traction in recent days. Obama personally seems more energized and more focused than he has lately, when even friends wondered whether he was mentally checking out of his job. His aides also seem to have a clearer sense of purpose.

That bodes well for the country. Obama still has 28 months in his presidency. Like him or not, the United States needs a strong, effective leader who brings clarity and judgment to the tasks ahead. Spirits are stirring in that vasty deep once again.

David Gergen is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.