A Reluctant Warrior Takes Aim at ISIL

A U.S. Air Force fighter jet refueling over northern Iraq, Aug. 21 (courtesy U.S. Department of Defense).

President Obama laid out a strong case for why ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant) must be defanged in his address to the nation yesterday. The president grounded U.S. action in humanitarian concerns and referred to the many horrific actions the Sunni extremist group has taken—massacring captive soldiers, killing children, raping and enslaving women, beheading hostages—as he sought to rally Americans for military strikes against ISIL. Even as he did so, he was at pains to clarify that this war will be unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve U.S. boots on the ground but will depend on American firepower as the United States, in concert with allies, works to degrade and destroy ISIL.

It was a short speech and an effective one, I thought, but it left some key questions unanswered. What have our allies signed on to? How will we measure success, and when will we know when the mission is accomplished? What happens if ISIL is not destroyed and ground troops become necessary?


Deepening U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war by striking ISIL in Syria while increasing funding for other members of the Syrian opposition appears particularly problematic. As with the $500 million appropriated a few months ago for Syria’s “moderate” rebels, the idea that one can arm some rebel factions and not have arms end up in other factions’ hands (or not have the factions join in common cause) depends on wishful thinking. The United States remains adamant that Syrian President Assad must go, but sending more arms to one of his opponents while attacking another may just end up worsening the conflagration. The enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, and shifting alliances and coalitions are to be expected on both our side and those of rebel groups.

The president comes to this operation a reluctant warrior. He was elected to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this new war is already being called The Third Iraq War. ISIL’s rapid and dramatic conquest of territory in Iraq, its brutal measures and the political consequences here at home of inaction have forced Obama’s hand. The videotaped beheadings of two American journalists have created a groundswell of support for U.S. military action against ISIL.

The case for action against ISIL is stronger than why Americans should lead it, however. ISIL is a menace to the countries and peoples in the region, not to the United States. Its primary target is Shiites, not Americans, and though Obama called ISIL a threat it is not so directly. Will the American public six months from now still support the war against ISIL, or does this operation, so carefully delimited at the outset, seem likely to become another engagement that the United States limps away from with less than satisfactory results? The current mess in the Middle East is to a large extent of the United States’ own making. Will this new war be different? 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 4 months ago
You couldn't resist saying the current mess is largely our own making. Well, that's true if you mean the president's dithering and early withdrawal from Iraq helped ISIS coagulate, plus the president hasn't helped enough in Syria. Alas, I don't think you mean that since your earlier writings blame Israel and our support of Israel for the mess. Now I'm supposed to believe this naive president knows how to fight? To lead? He hasn't shown any resolve in these matters yet.
ed gleason
4 years 4 months ago
Vincent. G. opines about 'the president's dithering and early withdrawal from Iraq ' .. Would VG be aghast when the US troops left behind there as the Iraq divisions threw down their US weapons and ran.. VG might have seen the slaughter and beheading of US troops by ISIS if we should have left. the US troops in Iraq.... i say many thanks to the 'dithering' president for the Iraq withdrawal two years ago. . . . .
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 4 months ago
No, ISIS would not be combat ready or currently in Iraq if we had stayed. ISIS comprises cowards and would not get within a blade length of a US Army or Marine unit. The Iraqis are useless soldiers, but ours are not. This propped up rabble are no match for a real fighting force. Say thanks to the dithering president if you like, but his Hamlet act will result in yet more trouble.
David Scantling
4 years 4 months ago
"Empire and assassination seem to go hand in hand" and "[o]ur politics today are not so different from ancient Rome's"--absolutely; you got it right in your "Imperial Prerogatives" opinion article (America: March 24, 2014). Moreover, Rene Girard's insights several years ago in his article "On War and Apocalypse" continue to resonate: "[w]e are thus facing complete failure...[t]oday's terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand and that classical Islam may not understand either." (First Things: August/September, 2009) Liberal Western democracies and their opposing totalitarian Islamist "caliphates" are caught in a duel of escalating extremes--with no end in sight. Obama's high-tech, "new war" against the estimated 31,000+ members of ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State will be functionally equivalent to the failed "global war on terrorism/long-war" strategies previously implemented in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Philippines--and elsewhere--since 9/11. Sadly, it seems that neither progressives in the secular, post-modern West nor Islamic jihadists in ISIL and Al Qaeda have much use for the Gospel. [Editorial note: The photo with the article depicts the aerial refueling of a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet; however, it's flown by the U.S. Navy, not the U.S. Air Force (i.e., the U.S. Air Force does not have any Super Hornets).]
Gabriel Marcella
4 years 4 months ago
The root of the problem goes back to the ending of the first Gulf War, when the US allowed the defeated Iraqi army to retain enough power to reconstitute itself--much to the surprise of the Iraqis. This led to the second Gulf War, where colossal mistakes were made, especially in the termination phase.. Historians will tell whether its was possible for the US to remain with an estimated 10,000 troops to provide security and train the new Iraqi armed forces.The conventional wisdom says that Obama tried to achieve a status of forces agreement whereby US forces would not be subject to the Iraqi legal system, standard procedure for US forces abroad, Did Obama try hard enough? The answer to this is important. Thus, mistakes originating in the first war have had a decisive effect in shaping our strategic choices since then. Maybe he's not popular among Catholic media, but Carl von Clausewitz warned that the way you end a war will determine how the next one begins. Let's hope that our statesmen think through the decision to go to war. Our record so far is not encouraging.


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019