President Barack Obama is carefully putting together a coalition of partners to join the U.S. in degrading and ultimately destroying the radical terrorist group ISIS. His approach has come under attack from critics who want America to immediately strike ISIS in Syria, which is exactly what ISIS wants the U.S. to do.
In a major development, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has approved his country's cooperation with the U.S. as part of the fight against ISIS, according to the BBC. Iran's population is largely Shia Muslim, which the Sunni ISIS group views as heretics.
Up until now the Iranian leader has opposed allowing his military to cooperate with the U.S., which has been leading the effort to force Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions. But last month American air strikes helped Iranian-backed Shia militia, as well as Kurdish forces, defeat ISIS fighters at Amerli, in northern Iraq. Now Khamenei has authorized a top Iranian military commander in region to coordinate with forces fighting ISIS, including the U.S.
The Obama White House has been working to build a broad coalition for weeks to deal with ISIS. Pressure has intensified on the president as Congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for U.S. air attacks on ISIS in Syria, where much of the organization is based. The president has been reluctant to attack ISIS in Syria because it would end up helping Syria's ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad, who ISIS is also seeking to topple. This is just another example how complicated the situation in the region is.
President Obama has come under harsh criticism for not having a strategy to deal with ISIS in Syria. Many of these critics supported President George W. Bush's global strategy, the Bush Doctrine, which led to the misguided war in Iraq a decade ago, following al Qaeda's attack on the United States, that then unleashed a chain reaction of events that has now led to today's crisis in the region.
Under the Bush Doctrine the U.S. would topple dictators, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and replace them with a democratically elected government. Instead, nearly 5,000 American soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
Meanwhile, a deeply divided Iraq has been unable to form a successful democratic government. Iraq fell into chaos as the Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to be inclusive, and wanted U.S. combat troops out of the country. Of course, now Iraq wants the Americans back to help fight ISIS.
On Friday the U.S. announced it had formed a coalition of countries to take on ISIS. The announcement was made at the NATO meeting in Wales, and the strategy could serve as a template for dealing with terrorist organizations in the future. So far, the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey were among the NATO countries that joined to coalition.
Officials made it clear that ground forces in Syria would come from the moderate Assad opposition, and the Kurds and the Iraqi regular army would fight in Iraq, with the assistance of U.S. airstrikes. "Obviously I think that's a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground," Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the Arab countries that have indicated they will participate. The plan, which is still being worked on, will take some time to play out.
Meanwhile, U.S. airstrikes have been effective in slowing the ISIS, but the groups' brutal tactics continue. ISIS has beheaded two American journalists and threatens more beheadings unless the U.S. stops its bombings. Some experts believe that ISIS wants nothing more than to draw the U.S. into a full-scale war. ISIS could then claim equal footing with the world's only super power, and could use such a war to increase recruits and funding from anti-American groups.
But, unlike the neocons that ran Bush's failed foreign policy, President Obama is not going to be rushed into another ground war. He believes he needs a strong coalition, including Arab countries, and a more inclusive Iraqi government, to ensure a broader and more enduring solution. For sure, sending in U.S. ground troops would lead to a quick short-term victory, but ISIS would return the minute U.S. troops withdrew from the region.
President Obama's actions reflect the sentiment in a war-weary America that does not favor committing more U.S. troops. Still, because of all the criticism aimed at the president, his approval ratings on foreign policy are low. Maybe he should have armed moderate Syrians a year ago. Maybe he shouldn't have said he doesn't have a strategy for defeating ISIS in Syrian when he was working on one.
However, it is better to be thoughtful and measured rather than impulsive and emotional. There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but all stakeholders must work together if there is to be a lasting peace. And the president is building that coalition.
Another way of saying "don't do stupid stuff" is, "be smart."