08/20/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

The Perils of Obama's Vacillating Strategy Toward ISIS

Although turmoil in the Middle East long predates President Obama, his strategy of conciliation and retrenchment has made matters considerably worse. Obama remains obtuse to the threat radical Islamists pose: that includes the Shiite theocracy in Iran bent on crossing the nuclear threshold, the virulently anti-American Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, radicals in Libya who attacked the American embassy, Boko Haram in Africa, an increasingly anti-Western Turkey on an Islamist trajectory, and Hamas in Gaza. By focusing exclusively on the cost of acting decisively, he has perilously ignored the risk of inaction or doing too little, too late.

The administration's bungling of the Syrian crisis devastated American prestige, with global ramifications in Ukraine and East Asia as well as the Middle East. In August 2013, the president announced the U.S. would launch strikes for Syrian Dictator Assad crossing his redline against the use of chemical weapons. Then Secretary of State John Kerry flinched, describing the contemplated attacks as "unbelievably small." Instead, the President accepted Vladimir Putin's diplomatic figleaf of transferring Syria's chemical weapons arsenal to international control under the auspices of the United Nations. It requires gullibility in the extreme to assume that the UN could reliably enforce verify and enforce such a scheme. Consequently, Assad succeeded in defying Obama's red line with impunity. Rogue regimes took notice.

By waiting years to render any effective aid to the Syrian rebels, President Obama doomed the never robust changes for the emergence of a viable moderate alternative to Assad. Consequently, the Syrian Civil War has metastasized into a regional civil war, pitting Iran and its surrogates Hezbollah against a Sunni coalition in which Islamists such as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) predominate. ISIS has become one of the most feared and ferocious terrorist entities in the world, routinely beheading, crucifying, or amputating the limbs of its victims. ISIS now controls a nation-size area encompassing substantial parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq will not survive ISIS's onslaught unless the United States leads a coalition of moderate Iraqis to defeat it through a combination of sustained airstrikes and an American troop presence ranging in the thousands rather than the hundreds of special forces advisers President Obama has proposed.

Although we can never know for sure what would have happened otherwise, the Obama administration likely facilitated the rise of ISIS by withdrawing American forces from Iraq prematurely before adequately consolidating the substantial gains of President Bush's 2007 surge. In 2011, the president declared the Iraq War at an end, boasting of leaving behind a stable and self-reliant Iraq. As Dexter Filkins reports in the New Yorker, the Obama administration barely attempted to exert its considerable leverage to achieve a status of forces agreement that would have prolonged a reduced American military presence.

The unconditional withdrawal of American forces created a power vacuum in Iraq which Iran and other radicals filled. It unleashed Iraqi Prime Maliki's worst sectarian instincts, making him more dependent on Iran. It facilitated Iran using Iraq as a conduit to support surrogates in the Syrian Civil War which has blown back to imperil the coherence of the Iraqi state.

On August 7, President Obama announced the United States would protect Iraq's embattled Kurds with limited airstrikes and conduct humanitarian military missions to rescue civilians trapped on mount Sinjar. Regrettably, this limited, incremental, and belated response to ISIS reprises the administration's errors dealing with Putin in Ukraine, Assad in Syria, an increasingly brazen China in the waters of the western Pacific. The president spent more time pledging he would "not be drawn back into a war in Iraq" rather than conveying any determination to stop ISIS. Obama offered no strategic rationale for his limited use of force beyond humanitarian concerns. He conditioned any further assistance on Iraqis "forging a government that represents the legitimate interest of all Iraqis," even though defeating ISIS convincingly is the prerequisite for accomplishing any durable political reconciliation.

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow the Brooking Institution and Robin Simcox, a research fellow at the Henry M. Jackson Society in London rightly deem the president's plan woefully insufficient to achieve our vital interest of defeating ISIS. Worse, history brims with examples demonstrating how the irresolute use of force risks the worst possible outcomes. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs Fiasco in 1961 tempted Soviet Premier Khrushchev to provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Lyndon Johnson's strategy of graduated escalation convinced an implacable North Vietnam the United States lack the will to win. The debacle of Carter's failed rescue mission of the American hostages in Iran plummeted American prestige its Cold War Low. Clinton's precipitous withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 fed the delusion of Osama Bin Laden that the United States was the great but decadent Satan too irresolute the fight.

The United States would save much blood, toil, tears, and sweat defeating ISIS decisively now rather than later. Yet Obama's pinprick response devoid of strategic rationale will invite the maximum contempt for American resolve. The president will compound the risk of miscalculation if he continues to speak loudly while carrying a small stick.