The indispensable nation

A Saudi fighter-jet pilot is part of a U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State militants.
A Saudi fighter-jet pilot is part of a U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State militants. AP

Anyone listening to President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday should have been left with little doubt: The United States is back in the business of war against enemy forces in the Middle East.

Two weeks ago, President Obama pledged in a televised address to the nation that U.S. forces would “degrade and destroy” the latest extremist threat in the Middle East, the so-called Islamic State. On Wednesday, he upped the ante: The United States will lead “a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death,” he told the General Assembly.

Considering that Mr. Obama ran for president as the “anti-Bush” — and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his stance — it’s no wonder that some of his supporters, particularly within his own Democratic Party, consider the change a betrayal that takes the nation in the wrong direction. Ten years after President George W. Bush made his own appearance before the United Nations to rail against “outlaw dictator” Saddam Hussein, another American president has sounded a warlike note at the world assembly.

Has the dove turned into a hawk? Hardly. Throughout his presidency, Mr. Obama has rarely hesitated to use force when necessary (see article on the Other Views page) to eliminate Osama bin Laden and other terrorists like him. His use of drones from Pakistan to Yemen suggests he is prepared to use any means available to target extremists.

As for his campaign promises, he kept his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq and is doing the same in Afghanistan. And he has promised — even over the barely disguised objections of his own military chiefs — that the fight against the latest terrorist scourge will not require the large-scale presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East. No boots on the ground.

Mr. Obama has found, though, that America cannot afford to withdraw from the world and its dangers, even if it means devoting more attention, and money, to international events instead of a pressing domestic agenda.

No other country has the will, the resources or the standing necessary to lead coalitions against threats to world order, be they armed terrorists or epidemics like the Ebola virus. The United States remains the indispensable nation, if not by choice then by default, and the threat posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist factions cannot be ignored.

Precisely because so much is at stake, Mr. Obama must avoid the pitfalls that come when issues of war and peace are involved. We still believe that it was a mistake for the president not to ask for a vote in Congress on authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State, particularly in Syria.

He may believe he has the authority as commander in chief to act on his own, but a no-holds-barred public debate on Capitol Hill would be a useful, even enlightening, exercise in democracy that could benefit the American public by laying out the issues clearly and letting them know where their lawmakers stand. He should call for a debate on the issue when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session in November.

The country has learned through sad experience that military involvement in the Middle East entails unforeseen consequences. Mr. Obama had little choice but to take up the challenge against the Islamic State. But the campaign won’t be short or cheap, and it won’t be free of controversy. Having the explicit support of Congress behind the campaign would benefit both the president and the country.