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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seib: President Obama Gambles Delay on Islamic State Was Worth It - Change in Iraq's Government Became Price for Full Dose of American Military Help Against ISIS

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama's speech to the nation Wednesday night laying out a strategy for dealing with the threat from Islamic State extremists closed the book on one presidential gamble—but opened the door to a fresh one that's only beginning.

The first gamble Mr. Obama took unfolded over the past three months, starting on the day in early June when Islamic State fighters captured the strategic Iraqi city of Mosul. With that victory, Islamic State established itself as a legitimate threat to an Iraqi government that the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars propping up.

Yet rather than move quickly with a big American response, Mr. Obama instead decided to delay, using the specter of the Islamic State threat to generate pressure on Iraqis to first ditch Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The White House had concluded that Mr. Maliki had become a divisive Shiite sectarian leader who stood in the way of overseeing a unified Iraqi government and military capable of working with the U.S. to really turn back Islamic State fighters.

A change in Iraq's government, in short, became the price for a full dose of American military help. That change in Baghdad finally came this week, when Mr. Maliki officially departed and a new prime minister and government moved in. That has raised American hopes that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds might become more united in working with the U.S. to begin reclaiming ground that Islamic State forces have seized, and it led directly to Mr. Obama's speech to the nation announcing a step-up in American military involvement.
 
The president calculated, in short, that there was little justification for unleashing American military might on behalf of an Iraqi leader and government that already had proved more than capable of squandering the help. And in the administration's eyes, the wait was worthwhile because the delay forced Iraqis to begin putting their house in order to wage what figures to be a long-term fight that, ultimately, only they can win.
"American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region," Mr. Obama said in his speech. "That's why I've insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days."
Still, the wait was risky, and whether the political gains made justified the costs incurred won't be possible to gauge for some time. In the interim, Islamic State forces gained more ground, both in Iraq and Syria—so much ground, in fact, that Mr. Obama had to step in weeks ago with limited airstrikes to slow down Islamic State advances while the political change in Baghdad was still being worked out.
The wait also risked further erosion in the fighting abilities of the local military units capable of pushing back Islamic fighters: the main Iraqi Army in the heart of Iraq; the Free Syrian Army of moderate Syrians fighting inside Syria; and the Kurdish forces battling in Kurdish areas of Iraq. And indeed, all three forces have suffered setbacks at the hands of Islamic State in recent weeks.
In addition, Mr. Obama himself suffered some collateral damage.

He was criticized at home and abroad for being too slow and indecisive in responding, and public ratings of his handling of foreign policy nose-dived. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this week found public approval of the job he is doing on foreign policy standing at 32%, the lowest of his presidency.

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who helps conduct the Journal/NBC News poll, said Mr. Obama has the chance to stabilize his public standing and begin building it back up with the approach he's unveiled.

Now, though, that new gamble begins. It takes two forms. First, Mr. Obama is gambling that what still will be a limited American military role—certainly compared with past U.S. efforts in Iraq—will be enough to stem the Islamic State tide.

He is further gambling that American public opinion will remain supportive during what the president openly described as an inevitably long-term battle to bring Islamic State extremism to heel. In his remarks, he said the campaign will be "a steady, relentless effort."

As it happens, Mr. Obama spoke Wednesday night on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that began a long battle against terrorism. As he did so, Americans had again turned hawkish in their feelings about that struggle. Yet as President George W. Bush learned in the years after 9/11, Americans' patience for long struggles also has its limits.
 

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