President Obama, in the past, has demonstrated a way with written words, and he's done so again, this time in a joint op-ed with UK Prime Minister David Cameron for the London Times published on the eve of this week's NATO meeting in Wales. Promising that "we will not be cowed" by ISIS, the Islamist group that has beheaded two American journalists, the president and prime minister declared: "Those who want to adopt an isolationist approach misunderstand the nature of security in the 21st century. Developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria, threaten our security at home."
But the question is whether Obama has the will to live up to those words —even on his own, if our allies, including his co-author, will not join us. But to do so, the president would have to possess characteristics he's shown he lacks over the past five and a half years: an interest in and understanding of foreign policy, the humility to know what he doesn't know and the leadership to forgo partisanship in the national interest.
The crisis that ISIS poses is different from the one we faced with al-Qaida and most of the other Islamists in the war on terror. ISIS now controls territory and has sophisticated weapons, and if it holds the territory it has captured, it will become, de facto, what it likes to call itself: the Islamic State. Its soldiers wear uniforms and fight under a flag. They are more than terrorists; they are an army. ISIS has an ideology that it seeks to impose throughout the Middle East and ultimately beyond that region, as far as its resources and ability to recruit soldiers will allow. It is, according to published reports, already making inroads on the Indian subcontinent.
ISIS has killed Americans, but it has yet to launch an attack on our soil. Does anyone doubt it will try? After 9/11, does anyone believe it might not succeed? The group has declared war on America. But does Obama have the guts to go to war against ISIS?
There is much he can do militarily without a formal declaration of war, which requires Congress to act and would elevate ISIS. (ISIS is a threat, but it isn't Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.) But he should have Congress' backing for sustained military action, as President Bush did when he sent troops into Iraq in 2003.
Whatever one thinks of whether it made the right decision, Congress did authorize the president to use force in Iraq in 2002 and did so with bipartisan support. Yet it is hard to imagine Obama risking the ire of some in his own party, much less making the necessary overtures to Republicans to do something similar against ISIS. I hope I am wrong.
Obama has taken some steps against ISIS, namely bombing strikes in Iraq. But he must do more. It is not enough to try to contain ISIS. It is not enough — though it is a necessary step — to arm and train others to fight ISIS. It surely is not the right thing to do to give Iran a nuclear deal in the hopes that Iran will do something to stop ISIS.
Perhaps ISIS will be a wake-up call for this president. Perhaps he will do the right thing. He should be pressing our allies as hard as he can to join the fight. But he has wasted so much capital that it makes the task harder than it should be.
He came into office with the highest goodwill and expectations of our European allies. For goodness' sake, the man won the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into office (not that the list of past dubious winners inspires much confidence in the judgment of the Norwegian Nobel Committee). It will take hard work to round up a coalition of the willing. Does Obama have it in him to even try? Will he make his case to Congress and the American people? He needs both if he is to succeed.
Obama is writing and saying some of the right things. Now let's see what he will actually do.