Obama's War: Anything but Shock and Awe

Obama's plan to defeat ISIS is complex, and we’ll be very lucky—but very happy—if it all works as planned.

09.11.14 2:33 AM ET

So, another war in Iraq. On this superficial basis, some are saying that Barack Obama is somehow becoming George W. Bush, or that Bush is somehow vindicated. In a town where one frequently hears ridiculous things, I’ve rarely heard anything more ridiculous than this. What Obama laid out in his Oval Office address Wednesday is, within the context of war-waging, pretty much the polar opposite of what Bush did, the antithesis of shock and awe.

This is not necessarily to say it stands a better chance of success—the dice have to come up seven about 20 times in a row for Obama’s plan to work. But if somehow it does, it would offer a new model for how to engage in the world’s most volatile region and reduce its sectarian strife.

What Obama wants to do boils down to two goals. The first concerns Iraq, where he wants to roll the Islamic State back through means both military and diplomatic. The military means include first and foremost U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions, with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga doing the work on the ground. The diplomatic means involve, of course, getting new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to assemble a truly representative government, one that gives Sunni leaders an actual share of power and makes regular Sunnis feel more invested in their nation-state’s government than in ISIS.

Of these two, the diplomatic part will probably be much harder, although we don’t really know how hard the military part will be. ISIS is rich and pays its soldiers very well, but the Peshmerga are tough fighters, as we just saw in Erbil, and the Iraqi army appears to be shaping up and at least not dropping their weapons and running as they did in Mosul. However, the Iraqi army is seen by many Sunnis as an arm of Shia Iran. And as for the diplomatic part, who knows? Al-Abadi has been prime minister for all of three days. We don’t yet know whether Tehran has him on the tight leash with which it controlled Nouri al-Maliki. There are lots of questions, lots of hurdles.

The second goal has to do with Syria, and it’s far more complex. It too involves both military and diplomatic elements, and both are much more complicated than in Iraq, which is saying something. Militarily, it’s clear that we are now throwing in with the Free Syrian Army, of which Obama has been needlessly and harmfully dismissive in the past. But the FSA is our only play. We can’t throw in with Bashar al-Assad, as some have suggested, and it seems clear that Obama is resolved not to do this.

So we will undertake airstrikes in Syria—themselves the subject of no small amount of controversy in Congress, although Obama clearly feels he has the constitutional authority to go after ISIS anywhere and everywhere because it constitutes a direct national security threat—aimed at ISIS strongholds. That part isn’t so hard. The hard part is the hope that once we’ve hit ISIS targets in eastern Syria, the FSA can go into those redoubts and gain some victories.

The United States is now going to put a lot more money into training and equipping the FSA than Obama has been willing to commit to in the past, and the administration is hoping that the FSA can take—and, crucially, hold—territory. If that happens, then the diplomatic part kicks in, because if the FSA actually takes territory from ISIS, then it, and the comparatively moderate Sunni opposition it represents, might have the leverage to get elements of the Assad regime to sit at a negotiating table. A post-Assad Syria is part of the larger plan here, if the FSA can take some ground and if the moderate Sunnis can be persuaded to accept a negotiated settlement and share power with members of Assad’s Alawite sect.

None of this is going to happen anytime soon. It’s a project that will outlast Obama’s presidency. And as if all the above weren’t fraught enough, its success really hinges on buy-in from Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Qatar and others.

This is the one aspect of all this that Obama didn’t explain in the speech to anywhere near the extent he might have, and he probably didn’t because, well, he doesn’t know. Those three countries are playing a lot of games and placing a lot of side bets here. If they can be persuaded to become true coalition partners here—if the Saudis really agree to put serious money behind the FSA, if the Turks do more to shut the Turkey-Syria border to ISIS—then this really might work.

It’s a big if, but even today, without knowing how all that will work out, we know that this coalition is at least an attempt to do something serious. It’s not getting the Marshall Islands and Palau to sign on to an unprovoked war built on a mountain of lies and prosecuted with no eye toward the long term, which is what Bush did, and which is what made this mess in the first place.

This is an attempt to operate within the parameters permitted by public opinion in our democracy, to get the major Sunni nations of the Arab world involved (for once!) in fighting extremism instead of winking at it or openly backing it, to stabilize the country that Bush wrecked, to direct (with any luck) a country led by a monster toward a new future, and to defeat a medieval terrorist organization, all without actually invading anyone.

There are a thousand ways it can go wrong. But what if it goes right? And how about—here’s a crazy thought—we all hope that it does? And not for Obama’s sake: This gambit will certainly—certainly—define his foreign policy legacy, but it’s not for that reason that we should hope it all works. It’s for the sake of Iraqis and Syrians, and ultimately, for us.

Obama didn’t communicate every aspect of this fight effectively in the speech, which was too short and too vague. But the goals are the right ones. It’s a strategy, and he didn’t wear a tan suit.