Obama Can Stand Up to Enemies Like ISIS, But Finding Allies Is the Real Challenge

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Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There has been a certain finicky strain running through President Obama’s speeches about ISIS over the past few weeks. Even as he has repeatedly stressed how long the campaign against ISIS will take, even as he has detailed the air strikes already under way and the military advisers dispatched to aid the resistance, Obama has refused to call the American involvement what it so obviously is: war. There would be no ground troops, he kept reassuring us, and though there are obvious political reasons to do this, it seemed, given the length and depth of the engagement he foresaw, a somewhat arbitrary line to draw.

But Obama’s address tonight was clarifying. He took pains to sketch out the limits of the American role in the campaign against ISIS: The United States would “rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity,” Obama said, and then it would hover just above the front lines, “using our airpower and our support for our partners’ forces,” while leaving others to take the human risks of fighting on the ground. More telling, Obama identified this role as a theme running through his presidency, an approach “that we have successfully pursued in Somalia and Yemen for years.” This wasn’t exactly a new vision of American power — Bosnia updated for the drone era, more or less — but it gave some shape to the weirdness of the last few weeks: Obama was reviving the old liberal aspiration that through technology and alliances, the world could be policed in a manner that could plausibly be called something other than war.

The conservative caricature of Obama, when it comes to foreign affairs, is that he is a wimp, too cowardly and airy to stand up to obvious enemies. Chris Christie, asked at a closed meeting of Republican activists earlier this year how he would have dealt with Putin, said that the Russian had seen Obama’s weakness: “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,” Christie said. “Let’s leave it at that.” This isn’t just swaggering — it is exactly the opposite of the truth. Obama has never struggled with what to do about enemies — his rhetoric on Putin has been pure acid, especially compared with the warmth of President Bush’s approach, and in speaking about ISIS in recent weeks, he has called the terrorist group nothing so much as he has called it “evil.”

What has vexed Obama has usually been the question of whom the United States might trust — the problem of friends. The futile hunt for friends characterized the long Obama withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq. In Syria, the long, pained, ultimately failed search for a tolerable proxy in the opposition precluded any American involvement, a hesitation that now looks like the biggest foreign-policy error of Obama’s presidency. During the Gaza conflict, Obama was far cooler towards Israel than his predecessors have been. If you want to hang back from the front lines, to hover overhead and urge your friends to the front lines, then the question of exactly who those friends are becomes crucial.

ISIS, in its radicalism and its cartoonish barbarism, solved the enemy problem for Obama. It hasn’t completely solved the matter of the friends. Obama spoke confidently about the new, “inclusive” government that Iraqis had formed “in recent days.” Given the long history of sectarian animosity and slaughter in Iraq, it seems worth wondering whether this new coalition of a few days duration will hold under the pressures of a war. Already tonight, NBC’s Richard Engel suggested that the Sunni villagers and leaders whom Obama hoped to win might view the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government as a greater threat than ISIS. In Syria, where Obama said he will be fighting, too, no new trustworthy partners have come forward — the same problem, of on whose behalf we are fighting, persists. The president spoke optimistically of “Arab partners,” but what those partners will be willing to do and how much they will be willing to sacrifice given the complexities of influence in the Middle East remains to be seen. The hinge, though, is the same one that has existed for this White House throughout this presidency: Can Obama find enough trustworthy friends?