Is the president too cautious on ISIS?

John Crisp
John Crisp

The Republican presidential candidates’ responses to President Barack Obama’s Dec. 6 speech on his strategy to defeat the Islamic State were uniformly negative.

Donald Trump said, “Is that all there is? We need a new president – fast!” Marco Rubio said the president’s anti-Islamic State coalition is “absurd.” Jeb Bush called his address “weak.” George Pataki called the president’s strategy “pathetic.” Carly Fiorina tweeted: “Vintage Obama: No strategy, no leadership. Politics as usual.” And so on.

Some Democrats expressed skepticism as well.

Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said, “When you interrupt the nation with an urgent and unscheduled statement from the Oval Office … there’s I think an expectation that the address will contain a new approach or a new element.”

But it’s hard to imagine what the new element would be unless it’s the deployment of a significant number of American ground troops to fight the Islamic State. And on this the president was clear and emphatic: Wary after more than a decade of mostly ineffective war-making in Afghanistan and Iraq, at an enormous cost, the president refuses to put the lives of American soldiers at risk in a savage battle far from home.

So I prefer Obama’s more measured and deliberate strategy, even though – as the New York Times put it – it “underwhelms.”

There’s only one problem with Obama’s strategy: It may not work.

Victory is far from certain. At best, an American military spokesman says, “It’s a slow process.”

At best, in the president’s strategy, success is a long way off and, in any case, his strategy may be overtaken by events beyond his control that could unavoidably tip us into a more aggressive military response.

Events such as an Islamic State attack in the U.S. on the scale of Paris. Or a captured American airman displayed in a cage and threatened with a fiery death. Or the election of a Republican for president next year. Obama’s cautious Islamic State strategy is unlikely to survive any of these events.

Few entities deserve “carpet-bombing” more than the Islamic State. But I suspect that no one really knows if such bombing will reduce the number of terrorists in the world or create more of them. Unfortunately, we may be on an unavoidable path to find out.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.