When President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Monday he advocated what he called “a different type of leadership.” What the world needed was, he said, “leadership strong enough to recognize that nations share common interests and people share a common humanity.” That’s a lovely sentiment, but was the foreign policy equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card extolling the virtues of friendship or love. Diplomacy and international cooperation have their uses and can be useful tools in the art of statecraft. But forestalling the rise of ISIS, restraining an Iran bent on regional hegemony in the Middle East or deterring an increasingly aggressive Russian government set on restoring the lost glories of the Tsarist and Soviet empires requires a kind of leadership that is rooted in the real world where the application of power counts for more than idealistic notions, futile diplomacy or empty rhetoric. But if Obama’s General Assembly speech wasn’t enough to convince America’s foes that this administration shouldn’t be taken seriously, then they were certainly put at ease by his remarks on Tuesday before a UN summit aimed at countering ISIS and other “violent extremism.” By claiming that ISIS could only be defeated by ideas rather than force, he sent the exact message that terrorist group was counting on.
President Obama never anticipated that what he once dismissed as a “JV” terror team could conquer much of Iraq and Syria. But now that it’s happened, he and other Western leaders are flummoxed by its popularity in the Muslim world. The fact that more than 30,000 foreign volunteers have flocked to Syria to join ISIS in the last year despite strenuous Western efforts to prevent their entry into the war zone is tangible evidence of the group’s appeal. But faced with that fact, Obama and his allies like David Cameron think the way to beat these Islamists is by convincing the world that freedom is better than the caliphate’s brand of religious fanaticism. The president thinks that those who speak of the need for the application of greater force are applying outdated paradigms about conflicts that have been transcended in the 21st century.
Part of the reason for this belief stems from Obama worldview’s that disdains American exceptionalism and the use of conventional force and elevates international cooperation and diplomacy to sacred status. ISIS arose in the vacuum left by the president’s feckless total withdrawal from Iraq that allowed him to campaign for re-election as the man who “ended” the war that had so troubled Americans. But the president views the Middle East solely through the prism of the domestic debate about Iraq during the last decade. He seized control of the Democratic Party from Hillary Clinton largely on the strength of his opposition to the war and now thinks it provides the answer to all debates about the use of force. As he stated again in his General Assembly speech, he believes that the expenditure of American blood and treasure in Iraq was ultimately futile. That’s a convenient view considering that he was handed a war that was won by George W. Bush (though at great cost and only after painful years of frustration that forced a switch in strategy) only to see those gains lost by his decisions. But it dovetails nicely with his belief that traditional power politics won’t work and must be replaced by more enlightened strategies.
ISIS (or ISIL as he insists as calling it) has been holding its own against Western efforts to defeat it over the last year. The president was forced by a public that was outraged by ISIS atrocities to pledge to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the terror group but his efforts to do so have made it clear that he has no real interest in doing what is necessary to actually defeat the group. But the reason why ISIS remains in control of much of the territory of two nations is not because the West has not devoted sufficient efforts to combating their ideas, such as they are. An entity that goes out of its way to publicize the most brutal sorts of public executions of its enemies or it system of sexual slavery and destruction of historic artifacts has little interest in conducting a public relations campaign aimed at generating international applause in the way that Obama conceives of wars of ideas. To the contrary, the “caliphate” seems to relish the contrast between seemingly attractive Western ideals of freedom and tolerance and their conduct.
The reason why 30,000 volunteers are risking their lives to join the televised executioners is not because they haven’t been exposed to enough broadcasts about how wicked ISIS is or how good Western ideas are. They go because ISIS is seen as the “strong horse” that is defeating the West. Indeed, the more horribly ISIS behaves, the more likely many in the Muslim world are to sympathize with it because they see the group as flouting the Western ideas Obama wants to promote with impunity.
The only way to stop that flow is to do what Obama disdains to do: beat them on the ground with troops and air power. It is true that Iraq demonstrated the difficulties of asymmetrical warfare between Western armies and terrorists. But ISIS won control of vast territories with conventional warfare, not guerilla tactics. Throwing them out of it will require its opponents to summon the will and the wherewithal to beat them in the same manner. Until that happens, volunteers will continue to flock to the banner of a cause that is rightly perceived as beating the West.
Much as he would like to pretend that the world has changed into one where traditional notions about the use of military power no longer apply, President Obama cannot talk ISIS into surrender. Only when ISIS is routed, its leaders killed and its followers scattered or imprisoned will it be possible to talk of ideas. It may be that Obama is not entirely wrong when he judges the American public as so war weary as to be unwilling to do what it takes to defeat ISIS. But so long as the leader of the free world pretends that rhetoric will conquer an entity that achieved what it has gained in the last two years with military force, ISIS knows it has nothing to worry about from America.