President Barack Obama speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sept. 8, 2014.
Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

President Barack Obama has a problem. Just when he thought he was getting out of the Middle East, he keeps getting pulled back in.

After declaring the successful conclusion of two wars initiated by his predecessor, the centerpiece of his foreign policy, external events have backed the president into a proverbial corner.

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And Wednesday night the war-weary commander in chief of a war-weary nation announced the latest front in an open-ended Middle East conflict that draws America into ever-deeper sectarian and religious wars.

This expansion of American military power into Iraq and Syria has been triggered by the spectacular rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the rogue quasi-state actor that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and proved more radical in its beliefs than al-Qaida. ISIS’ military gains have been punctuated by the grisly Internet postings of the beheadings of two American journalists. After a rhetorical misstep, when he publicly admitted that America had “no strategy” to eliminate ISIS, Obama has taken steps to restore confidence in his administration’s response.

Last week in Wales for the NATO summit, he announced the launch of a coalition that will include British Prime Minister David Cameron. And Wednesday night Obama went further, announcing the launch of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS that includes the deployment of 475 troops who will serve in an advisory capacity.

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We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS,” Obama promised. “We will hunt down terrorists wherever they are.” The president insisted that he would not be drawn into another ground war in Iraq, but his speech hinted at the measure of anxiety that ISIS has triggered in Washington.

Airstrikes, military advisers, humanitarian assistance to Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and an international coalition designed to aid Iraqi and Syrian security forces may not be enough to prevent ISIS from completely destabilizing the region. That prospect, once unthinkable, is now very much a possibility.

“It will take time to eradicate a cancer like [ISIS],” said the president. Victory would require a “steady” counterterrorism campaign that “mobilizes partnerships whenever possible.”

Obama finds himself once again making a plea for the expansion of military force in the Middle East. His latest speech may eventually be remembered as a mere prelude to a larger future conflict, one that may find ground troops battling ISIS fighters and security forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Ideally, American and NATO military advisers will be able to halt ISIS advances along the Iraq-Syria border through a combination of airstrikes, training, and humanitarian and logistical aid. Yet recent history has shown such a perspective to be wishful thinking: Syrian and Iraqi security forces have proved no match for the zeal of ISIS fighters. 

Which leaves Obama in a difficult position of attempting to show strength by a strategic, rather than overwhelming, use of force. Meanwhile, critics, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, have ratcheted up their Obama hate to new heights by blaming the rise of ISIS on the president’s “failed policies” in the Middle East.

One thing seems certain. There’s no easy way out of the Middle East for American forces. Obama’s speech, delivered on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, reflects new foreign policy realities, ones that presidential candidate Obama fought mightily against.

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The president’s impulse to remove all ground troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has turned out to be more complicated than his administration anticipated. The continued presence of ground troops in Iraq might have offered the U.S. more flexibility in dealing with ISIS, a group that is turning out to be one of the unexpected legacies of the Iraq War. American troops are scheduled to exit Afghanistan in 2016. This, along with troop withdrawals in Iraq, fulfills one of Obama’s most important campaign pledges.

The promise to withdraw troops from both theaters of war was popular—at least at the time—with millions of Americans who wanted peace. But Obama, who vowed to end war, now finds himself launching a new front in a conflict that has proved far easier to continue than to end.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.