Anyone who wondered how Barack Obama was going to spend the last two years of his presidency got an answer last week: He’ll be fighting a war.
When the president talks about his new offensive against the extremist group that calls itself Islamic State, he sounds as warlike as George W. Bush ever did.
“There can be no reasoning, no negotiation, with this brand of evil,” Obama said. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
If this sounds like a departure for the president, it’s not really. He may be using stronger language these days, but Obama has never been squeamish about ordering airstrikes against terrorists. He has launched many more drone attacks than Bush ever did — and in more countries too.
Even in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture during his first year in office, Obama warned that “Evil does exist in the world” — and added that war is sometimes the only right answer.
In the same speech, he articulated a second principle: “America cannot act alone.” And the current campaign has upheld that tenet, recruiting other countries (including , notably, five Arab nations) into a military coalition.
But another of the president’s pledges is about to be tested. Is it really possible for the United States to successfully lead a coalition into war without, as the president has promised, putting U.S. ground troops into combat?
So far, Obama has not merely declared limits on what he’s willing to do in this war; he’s stuck to them.
He delayed major airstrikes in Iraq for several weeks until Iraqis ousted Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and formed a new government. He delayed airstrikes in Syria for several days until the five Arab countries that had promised to participate confirmed that they’d be there. And when the U.S. commander in the Middle East proposed sending American advisors into combat with Iraqi units, the president said no.
Obama is not so much war-weary as he is responsibility-weary. While he has come to accept the idea of the United States as “the indispensable nation,” he still sounds as if he doesn’t always relish the role.
“When the world needs help, it calls on America,” he said earlier this month. “Even the countries that complain about America, when they need help, who do they call? They call us.”
Still, in this campaign, the results will depend mostly on the performance of others: the Arab countries in the coalition, the Iraqi government and its poorly led army, and — eventually — the moderate Syrian opposition groups Obama proposes to build, a process that will take years.
“The United States isn’t just herding cats,” noted Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute. “It’s herding wolves, rabbits, chameleons and maybe a few sheep.”
If that proves to be impossible, the question will become whether the president’s goal of destroying Islamic State can be achieved without going back on his promise not to put Americans into ground combat.
In the past, Obama has sometimes declared goals that were beyond the power of the United States to deliver — at least within the limits of action he has imposed on himself. He vowed to help oust Bashar Assad from power in Syria, but hasn’t found a way to make it happen. He offered rhetorical support to democracy in Egypt, but couldn’t match Saudi Arabia’s financial support for the military leaders who staged a coup. Now some of his own aides fear that his declared goal of destroying Islamic State without Americans engaging in ground combat is similarly unachievable.
The combination of lofty goals and circumscribed means has sometimes created a whipsaw quality. “Obama’s policy wavers between geopolitical calculations based on national interest and the rhetoric of universal values,” complained Anne-Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation, who served in Obama’s State Department under Hillary Clinton.
It also makes it unlikely that these conflicts will be resolved by January 2017. By then, Islamic State may well have been reduced to a nuisance, but it’s unlikely to have been destroyed. Syria will still be at war, and Bashar Assad may still be in power. Iraq will still be divided. The Taliban will still be fighting in Afghanistan.
The United States will be engaged in all those conflicts even if it has no combat troops on the ground. And Obama, like it or not, will be remembered as a war president after all.