Barack Obama’s address to United Nations General Assembly this week was the one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Two weeks ago I argued that, in foreign policy, the United States and the world needed a different Obama. This week, they got one.
This time was different not because the style was new or the words any more skillfully chosen but because Obama was changing course and not disguising it – and because of the context that forced him to rethink. For once, there was no suggestion that the world would surrender to his words. Instead, he was surrendering to facts he wished weren’t so. It was about time.
“First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed,” he said. “No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”
Those words seem strange coming from Obama, which only makes them more potent.
The president is right to seek allies, right to say the United States won’t occupy territory, and right to stress the role that governments in the Middle East must play in suppressing the psychotic ideology of Islamic State and similar groups. The U.S. can’t succeed in this alone, and even with allies might not succeed quickly or totally.
On the other hand, open-ended U.S. engagement and leadership are essential in confronting the threat. Up to now, Obama has wanted to deny that; finally, he’s acknowledged it.
So much for “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” as the president said in 2009. This week he cast the U.S. in a role that no other country could play.
Critics of this new commitment emphasize the danger of mission creep, the lack of any clear definition of success, and the failure to get explicit authorization from Congress. There’s something in each of those points – but they need to be weighed against the alternatives. If not this, then what? Stand aside, let Islamic State entrench itself and grow stronger, and see what happens? With persuasive reluctance, Obama has decided this would be a bigger gamble than the action he’s taking. It isn’t enough for critics to say he’s failed to make his case; they need to say what their policy would be.
The demand for a clearer definition of success, in particular, is only superficially reasonable. The purpose, as Obama stated, is to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State. That’s clear enough to be getting on with. Sure, “ultimately” conveys the difficulty, and even suggests that outright victory might be impossible. But that’s just how things are. If critics are saying, “Act only if outright victory followed by regional stability on the following tight schedule are assured,” they’re really saying, “Do nothing.”
There’s a case for that. The main risks in Obama’s policy don’t arise from the demands of international or U.S. law, or from the lack of a supposed “exit strategy.” They are, first, that under pressure of events the commitment will escalate beyond what is affordable, measured against what can be achieved; and, second, that by attacking Islamic State the U.S. might make it stronger.
On the first, Obama was clearer than most of his critics about the need to balance ends and means. He emphasized the limits of what the U.S. can achieve by itself and has guarded against one kind of escalation by insisting that U.S. ground forces won’t be used to occupy territory. A clearer definition of success – “But you promised to destroy the enemy by next summer” – could make observing those prudential bounds more difficult.
The second danger – that of making the enemy stronger – should indeed give one pause, not least because this is apparently Islamic State’s own calculation. Its ostentatious cruelty can only be intended to unite most of the world against it. Presumably, it expects to flourish better under those conditions than if it showed mercy or restraint and had only local enemies. If Islamic State really does want to be bombed by as many nations as possible, then leaving well alone might be the right policy for the U.S. after all.
I’d say the benefits of attacking Islamic State outweigh the risks – but it’s good, and again to his credit, that Obama is aware of the danger of playing into its hands. There’s a disturbing ambivalence toward Islamic State across the Middle East, so a battle for opinion will have to be waged and won as well.
Bringing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states into the military alliance was important not for the difference it will make in material terms, which is almost none, but because it shows that the fight is not between the West and the Arab world, or between Christians and Muslims. Obama called on leaders of Muslim communities around the world to argue more forcefully against the perversions of jihadism and the lust for sectarian conflict. That call needs to be taken up more widely.
All those things are necessary, and even with them “success” won’t be fast or easy or guaranteed. The old Obama understood that. The new Obama understands it too – but doesn’t make it an excuse for inaction. I say, good for the new Obama.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.