THE BLOG
10/13/2014 08:01 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

What Obama's War Critics Don't Get: Change Means Change

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President Obama has faced a lot of criticism lately for not being "tough enough" on ISIS. Most of it seems to boil down to this: Why won't he do what we always do?

  • Why didn't he leave (unwanted) forces in Iraq?
  • Why didn't he arm the Syrian rebels?
  • Why isn't he putting boots on the ground?

In other words: Why won't he double down on the failed strategies of the past?

To be fair, some of the attacks carry more weight than the rest. For example, complaints from military leaders that they aren't being given enough freedom to get the job done. They may well be right -- and I expect they know more about the subject than I do (odd as it may be to hear that from a pundit).

But what if military victory -- at least as traditionally defined -- is not the primary objective? What if, instead, the goal is to escape the seemingly endless need for military victories -- each one ending up so transient and inconclusive?

After all, we've been stuck in an entropic cycle of such "victories" (and some defeats) for decades, each one leading to the need for more. To a large extent, it's been a cycle of support, accommodation and intervention on behalf of governments that can't, or won't, take care of their own people. We beat back a threat, and sow the seeds of three new ones.

People who complain that Obama's foreign policy has no theme might look no further than this: just like he's always said, it's time for a change.

  • Maybe he could have strong-armed the Iraqi government into accepting an ongoing US military presence. And when would that presence stop being needed?
  • Maybe he could have stuck by his "red-line" comment armed the Syrian rebels (because, apparently, not changing your mind has a mystical power that outweighs all others). That would have required arming only the moderates we could trust among a hellacious tangle of those we couldn't. How well has that worked in the past?
  • And yes, maybe he could put boots back on the ground now, and that might lead to the earlier destruction of ISIS. But what then? Long-term occupation, presumably: using military might to keep a lid on a powder keg.

What if, instead, Obama's objective is to protect the United States from any direct threats, while helping and pushing other countries to protect themselves?

Beginning with the hard work of establishing the only solid foundation of security: legitimacy.

If that were Obama's goal, the right response to terror might look a lot like what the one we've been seeing. In his six years in office, Obama has managed to cripple Al Qaeda, even while he's been withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. Before attacking ISIS in Iraq, he arranged for a new, more representative Iraqi government. He formed an alliance that for the first time includes Arab states. And the attacks he's leading are focused on degrading ISIS' leadership, infrastructure and financing more than seizing control of ground.

It's almost as if winning and occupying physical territory might not be the only choice for fighting the new, stateless threat of terrorism.

It's almost as if change actually means change.