Last night, President Barack Obama announced his policy for addressing the Islamic State, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda that formed around the time the United States invaded Iraq under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. The Islamic State has, particularly following the 2011 American withdrawal, captured swathes of land across Syria and Iraq and in response, Mr. Obama is finally outlining his plan for dealing with the group.
Mr. Obama’s policy announcement brought little new revelations to the table. In fact, the only new aspect to the situation mentioned in it is that Mr. Obama “will not hesitate to take action against [the Islamic State] in Syria, as well as Iraq” -- his clearest indication that he will take the fight to the extremist group inside its Syrian territories to ensure that it “will find no safe haven.” Other than that, the President has hardly a concrete plan for Syria (unlike his Iraqi plan, which seems well-developed), indicating just how hard it is to address Syria.
What I found most significant about the announcement last night was actually not in the President’s speech at all, but in the GOP response aired on Fox News. Following familiar comments by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Sean Hannity’s program, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) came on the program and said something very important that many probably missed: "the reason we got here is because we took it upon ourselves to topple secular dictators who are the enemy of radical Islam.” Now this was a point I raised last week, that the United States lost the War on Terror when it deviated from the war’s (vague) guidelines.
I am not bringing this up as a way to pat myself on the back. The argument Mr. Paul raised is one that I feel should be addressed inside the White House, not just by Mr. Obama but by whomever is successor should be in 2017. American policy in the Middle East of late has been to favor these democratic experiments and nothing is inherently wrong with that. But in the process, beginning with Mr. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States has either attacked or sought to attack various strongmen throughout the region and quite predictably caused unstable environments to develop -- the very unstable environments that groups like the Islamic State capitalize on. A stable democracy is a terrorist’s worst nightmare, but a weak one is his greatest dream. Which of the two has the United States fomented throughout the region?
Recognizing the obvious failure of the United States’ policy in the Middle East (beyond the slow response to Iraq and Syria) is crucial if the United States wishes to stop groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Mr. Obama’s lack of approach to Syria is a perfect example of the way the American Middle East policy in the 21st century has been counterproductive and has led to situations the United States cannot readily understand how to fix.
Last night, Mr. Obama said that “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.” He’s right, but that requires the type of deft policy that has been lacking recently.