Congress will want war with Islamic State to be Obama’s alone

President Obama’s Wednesday night speech laying out his strategy to defeat and destroy the radical Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State inspired me to go into my library and pull a book off the shelf. That book is historian Jay Winik’s tome “April 1865: The Month That Saved America.”

Winik presents a fascinating and somewhat iconoclastic analysis of the closing 30 days of the Civil War, arguing that peace was not inevitable as Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Some Southerners wanted to fight on, to retreat into the hills and the swamps and fight a guerrilla war. Confederates had the means to do it – there were still rebel armies in the field – and many had the will.

Coupled with Lincoln’s assassination days after Lee’s surrender, a protracted fight against unconventional forces might have drained the resolve of Unionists. Certainly, it would have deepened the bitterness between North and South and may have made reconciliation impossible. The United States might never have been able to reunite, and our national and world history could have been drastically altered.

What, in Obama’s speech, sparked me to recall this Civil War speculation? Well, it struck me that the finality of the Civil War’s end, much like the finality of the surrenders that closed World War II, had at least something to do with the mindset of those who were vanquished. The Confederates, the Germans and the Japanese had been crushed on the battlefield and their economies were in ruins. By the conventional rules of war, they had lost and they accepted defeat.


But what happens if one is faced by an enemy that does not play by, nor accept, conventional rules and is willing to accept war without end?

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein had an army to be obliterated and a government to be toppled, and American forces found those tasks surprisingly easy. In Afghanistan, it was easy enough to bring down the Taliban government, but the Taliban fighters melted into the mountains, regrouped across the border in Pakistan and implemented a guerrilla war on their own turf. When American troops finally leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014 after a dozen years of war, the Taliban will still be there, still potent and menacing.

A president whose greatest foreign policy goal was to end two wars is now taking the country into a new fight with an unconventional enemy and, as soon as he finished laying out his strategy, the debate began about the viability of his plan to hit Islamic State fighters with U.S. airpower while arming and training Iraqis and others to battle them on the ground. The toughest question to answer: If an American army could not destroy the Taliban, can American bombs possibly be enough to finish off Islamic State?

Beyond the battlefield questions, there are other hugely complicating factors:


• Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, holds much of its territory in Syria, where its enemy is President Bashar Assad, the ruling despot that the U.S. and Europeans have been trying to bring down. Is Assad suddenly on our side or we on his?

• In Iraq, Islamic State has been buoyed by the cowardice of the Iraqi army and the support of Sunni Arabs who despise the Shiite Muslim-dominated government in Baghdad. Can the new Iraqi prime minister reassure Sunnis that they have a place in the new government, and can the Iraqi army, with help from the U.S. military, finally become an effective fighting force?

• Obama wants other Arab governments to join the fight against Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has the money and muscle to make a difference, but it has been the source of funding and fundamentalist Muslim ideology that has helped create a generation of extremists across the Islamic world. Can the Saudis be trusted to turn on their militant spawn?

By its vicious actions, Islamic State has convinced the president and a majority of Americans it is an evil that needs to be eradicated. Few members of Congress, though, seem convinced that Obama’s strategy – or any other – offers certain success. That may be one big reason why most of them are intent on avoiding a vote to authorize war against the militant group. If the deadly and costly enterprise fails, they may want only one name associated with the debacle: Obama.