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Obama Versus the Islamic State

WASHINGTON, DC – US President Barack Obama has laid out a detailed strategy for how his administration plans to combat the Islamic State, which controls a substantial portion of Syria and Iraq. Though I have been harshly critical of Obama’s policy toward Syria for two and a half years, his new strategy reflects a mature and coherent foreign policy – albeit one that does not fully live up to his proclaimed values. That omission may yet defeat his plan.

Obama’s approach is praiseworthy for three reasons. First, it combines force and diplomacy. Second, it attaches careful conditions to the type and scope of American military action. Third, it ties the fate of these efforts to the existence and effectiveness of a broad Middle East coalition, making clear that though the United States is prepared to lead, it cannot and will not assume the role of global policeman.

In the Middle East game of thrones, Obama is playing his hand as well as he can. He knows that a US-led military effort can significantly weaken the Islamic State, but that only a combined military-political effort can defeat it. He created political leverage for himself by drawing a clear line, announcing that the US would “expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions” only together with the newly-formed Iraqi government. If that government makes good on its promises of political inclusion, the US will help it get its country back; if not, not.

Equally important, but less evident, is the leverage that this position provides with respect to Iran. Obama never mentioned Iran during his speech; but commentators have speculated about whether his strategy gives Iran greater leverage over the US, on the theory that Iranian-backed fighters are critical to the success on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State. But Iraq’s Shia government is one of Iran’s major strategic anchors in the region; before the US began airstrikes against the Islamic State, it was far from certain that the Iraqi government would survive. Iran needs US airpower at least as much as the US needs Iranian-backed ground troops.