So ends a foreign policy experiment that began with two choices in 2011. In that hinge year, President Obama decided to stay out of the Syrian conflict and to passively accept the withdrawal of all U.S. ground forces from Iraq (which he later claimed as a personal achievement during his re-election campaign).
I’m not sure the motivation behind these acts can be termed a strategy. They seemed rooted in a perception of the public’s war-weariness (which Obama fed through his own rhetoric), a firm determination to be the anti-Bush, and a vague belief that a U.S. presence in the Middle East creates more problems than it solves. Not coincidentally, according to political scientist Colin Dueck, “elite, trans-Atlantic liberal opinion” viewed Obama’s approach as “the height of sophistication, regardless of its practical failures.”
Those failures are now massive, undeniable and unfolding: Atrocities in Syria (including the death of more than 10,000 children); an endless Syrian civil war in which the threat of the Islamic State, gathered strength; the victory of IS against a hollowed-out Iraqi military; the massacre of religious minorities; the establishment of a terrorist safe haven the size of New England, controlled by well-armed, expansionist, messianic militants … and now the forced return of American attention to the region under dramatically less-favorable circumstances.
This is what the complete collapse of a foreign policy doctrine looks like.
The options are few. The administration could seek the eventual destruction of the IS safe haven. Thousands of American troops would be necessary to advise Iraqi units, collect intelligence, conduct airstrikes and carry out special operations raids. This approach would require presidential leadership to mobilize American national will for a difficult fight against a determined enemy.
An alternative option might be the long-term containment of the Islamic State threat. This also would involve stabilizing the military situation in Iraq’s north and south but leaving IS militants in control of large sections of Syria and Iraq – trying to degrade their ability to strike globally and making clear that attacks on Western targets would bring massive retribution. This assumes a level of rationality (Western, secular rationality) on the part of Islamic State leaders that can only be called laughable. It is also the strategy most likely – after, say, a large-scale attack traced to the IS on an American city – to result in American divisions back in Mosul.
Or the Obama administration could continue to make a series of tactical adjustments to avoid further disaster while also avoiding setting out any definition of victory.
Clearly, the Obama administration is undergoing an internal struggle. And the president himself is a model of ambiguity, leaving the world to wonder if any of his various lines have a hint of red.
Is it even possible for Obama to make the psychological adjustment from “the ender of wars” to “the sworn enemy of the Islamic State?” His record offers no reason for encouragement. But upon this unlikely transformation now depends the future of the Middle East and the security of America.
Michael Gerson‘s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.