The most encouraging aspect of President Obama’s address about his plan to combat the Islamic State is that he avoided the trap of sounding uncertain and equivocal, as he has often done when obliged to assume the role of commander in chief.
Instead of sounding an uncertain trumpet, Mr. Obama in a concise 15-minute speech on Wednesday night, ordered a sustained military campaign against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria and explained in clear terms why it was necessary. The Islamic State, he said, has displayed a “unique brutality” that, left unchecked, could pose a growing threat to the United States. Therefore, he went on, an American-led coalition would take the fight to them.
This is a far cry from the president who drew criticism only a few days ago for admitting he had not formulated a strategy to confront the killers whom he had once belittled as a kind of “junior varsity.” His speech differed markedly, as well, from a far less convincing address he delivered exactly one year ago, when he failed to rally either Congress or public opinion on behalf of an effort to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
This time, the president vowed a “steady and relentless effort” to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State wherever it can be found, including Iraq and Syria. Wisely, the president did not issue a timetable or deadline for getting the job done. It may take years, extending America’s war footing beyond the end of his second term.
As the president was speaking, news reports disclosed that Saudi Arabia has agreed to open its bases for the training of moderate Syrian rebel forces as part of the effort against Islamic extremists. Although nations like Saudi Arabia are the most immediately vulnerable to bloodthirsty fundamentalists, they have been hesitant to act in unison with the United States. The existence of a coalition strengthens the fight against the Islamic State and offers a better chance of success.
The most discouraging aspect of Mr. Obama’s talk to the nation is that he had to deliver such a speech in the first place. Mr. Obama, lest anyone forget, took office after waging a campaign against the hasty decision to invade Iraq and the subsequent occupation of that country.
He took office as an antiwar champion who vowed to focus on rebuilding a shattered domestic economy instead of waging war, and a war-weary American public supported him. The emergence of the barbaric Islamic State in the region, however, has produced a dramatic change in U.S. attitudes and forced the administration to change direction.
Thus, Mr. Obama assumed the mantle of commander in chief more assuredly than ever before, but insisted that there would be no major new insertion of U.S. ground forces into the Middle East. Given the latest polls showing a remarkable turnaround in U.S. attitudes — more in favor of military action than at any time since the immediate post-9/11 period — such a declaration may not have been necessary, but it was nonetheless welcome.
The government and people of the United States would like nothing better than to withdraw from the Middle East militarily, but they cannot turn back when the forces of extremism threaten the future. And even though Mr. Obama believes he has the authority to take action in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East without getting express approval from Congress, lawmakers should not sit this one out. This is a time to show American resolve and strength, and the United States is never stronger than when it acts with bipartisan unity.