THE BLOG
11/10/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

The World, Not Just America, Must Stand Up to ISIS

In 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, governments intervened to stop the world's biggest banks from failing. So why, six years later, are they not joining together to confront Islamic extremism that threatens us all?

It is said that money makes the world go round. It certainly spurs governments into action. In the darkest days of the financial crisis, with stock markets falling through the floor, the world's leading central banks announced coordinated interest rate cuts on October 8, 2008. It was a bandage on a bleeding wound and the patient lived. The last time those banks had so acted was after the September 11 attacks. Sadly, with the bloody killers who call themselves the Islamic State running amok in Iraq and Syria, the world's power brokers do not seem to class the danger of Islamic terrorism as highly as the importance of preserving a bank's credit rating. Almost five months after IS broke into Iraq and captured one-third of that nation's sovereign territory, the world's response amounts to a management exercise rather than a leadership strategy. With the conflict spreading -- lives are now being lost on the borders of Turkey and Lebanon -- the United States has talked of a long regional conflict. Some experts have said it may last 30 years. Given that US President Barack Obama and his fellow leaders have spoken of the need to "destroy" IS, the public can legitimately ask why is such a long war being contemplated?

The regrettable answer is that IS is acting with more clarity and determination than the governments they are up against. While the West's presidents and prime ministers meet in the countryside on the weekend to discuss what to do, IS takes countries. As it stands, a group numbering no more than 15,000 fighters has cowed the United States and its allies into a policy of containment. The town of Kobane, on Syria's border with Turkey, is the current focus of this struggle but even if IS is repelled there by their Kurdish opponents it will not be the last fight. If anything, on current evidence, it will be the first of many more.

It is popular to blame Mr. Obama for not doing enough. But it is also wrong. The unspoken truth in the White House is that America knows it cannot act alone -- Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the limits of US military power -- but with only two years left in office there is no desire for another war. Nor is there any stomach to admit America's limitations. Mr. Obama's main mistake is that in his domestic political environment -- where the capacity for patience is shorter than a commercial break -- he is seen as the one figure who can do something. However, he would do better to ask for help than make another speech about "what must happen."

So, where would he start? Firstly, Mr. Obama should look beyond the fear and talk to Iran. The legacy of the US hostage crisis remains toxic in American politics, but after years of opposition from Congress the 44th president really has nothing to lose. He should also reach out to Russia and China and seek resources for tackling IS. The world is threatened by IS in a manner more fatal than in 2008's financial meltdown and yet the global response has been feeble by comparison. Despite American, British and French air strikes, with limited involvement from Gulf states thrown in, IS still holds the territory that it seized in June. The militants are not being repelled, let alone "destroyed." When Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Iran last month he told that country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that there was no need for foreign troops in Iraq as his own forces could stop the IS onslaught. Mr. Khamenei publicly agreed with him despite it being known that Iranian generals are in Iraq helping mostly Kurdish forces. There is no sign that Iraq can overcome IS alone and yet the government in Baghdad and its friendliest neighbor in Tehran extol such a pretense; the Iraqi Army fell apart not because of inadequate training by US forces but because of its sectarian make-up, which was engineered by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister whom Iran had backed for eight years. Someone, other than Mr. Obama and the United States, has to drive this point home. If the West can enlist the likes of China's President Xi Jinping and, yes, Vladimir Putin of Russia, a consensus may develop that allows this to happen. After Iran's years of isolation, such a role would allow Tehran's leaders to prove they have more to offer the world than unremitting bile. Its Quds Force, the praetorian guard of the Revolutionary Guard, has propped up Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, a sore point for the West to reconcile. Iran's wish to be the region's superpower is strong but it has already shown, by dropping Maliki in Iraq, that it has to bend when circumstances dictate. With a nuclear deal on the line, the West should leverage Iran's desires in return for cooperation on IS, given their mutual interest. At the moment, however, American and its usual but less than influential supporting acts of Britain, France and Germany, as well as Iran, are in collective denial. There is a stalemate. No one is winning.

There are other upsides to detente. A truly global coalition -- rather than the oil-rich but battle-soft pledges of Saudi Arabia -- against IS could also address the public's dwindling faith in the offices of the world's so-called last remaining superpower and its allies. A few thousand Islamic extremists have shown a greater determination to kill its opponents -- which include everyone who does not swear blind faith to their skewered Sunni Muslim ideology -- than the West has in confronting aggressors. The meek policy of not facing down this threat with a global response is inexplicable.