Stoddard: Will Obama meet ISIS threat?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, formerly some ragtag terrorist group President Obama wrote off as “JV,” has suddenly hijacked Obama’s presidency and his legacy — forcing Obama back in to war in Iraq, a fight he took pride in ending — and likely a new one in Syria as well.

What Obama has described as a humanitarian mission intended to help the Iraqis fight ISIS (or its other name, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is likely now morphing into an unprecedented confrontation against, in the words of Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Latest on historic Korea summit | Trump says 'many people' interested in VA job | Pompeo thinks Trump likely to leave Iran deal Should Mike Pompeo be confirmed? Intel chief: Federal debt poses 'dire threat' to national security MORE, an enemy “beyond anything we’ve seen.”

Hagel was joined at a press conference Wednesday by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in issuing stark warnings about the power and danger of ISIS/ISIL and telegraphing a significant escalation in the now limited battle against it. Both men described the group, which controls formerly sovereign territory in Iraq and numbers roughly 17,000 strong, as well-funded, highly sophisticated and successful in attracting and radicalizing Westerners. Dempsey warned ISIS can only be contained temporarily. And “can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border,” Dempsey said.

Their remarks, and blunt assessment, appear designed to prepare the American public for a change in strategy, despite Obama’s insistence that the United States will not serve as the Iraqi air force and that we cannot help significantly unless the Iraqis form “an inclusive government.” Hagel acknowledged what the president has yet to when he said “we are preparing a long-term strategy against ISIL because ISIL clearly poses a long-term threat.”

Sending his top two military officials out to make some not-so-subtle statements is a beginning, but Obama will eventually have to make the case himself, admit that he is changing his mind for a compelling reason, and try to convince a war-weary public that a larger and long-term fight against ISIS is worth more blood and treasure after our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is hard to imagine.

Although Obama tripled down in Afghanistan in December of 2009, he clung to the caveat of a withdrawal date on the very night he announced he was sending so many more troops there than former President George W. Bush had. He did not vigorously argue why it was necessary, or how it would produce a successful outcome. Instead he made the case that it would help for the limited duration, at which point we would leave. Not stay until victory, but stay until a departure date. In the months and years that followed he did not continue selling his policy to the American public and rarely spoke about the war he had deepened until he could end that one as well.

But ISIS has now been described as a threat to the homeland, a long-term threat more powerful than al Qaeda. It’s clear Obama’s military advisers have concluded that our air campaign against ISIS will only buy the president a bit more time but ultimately, as Hagel said, “the defeat of ISIL is not only going to come at the hands of airstrikes.”

Obama may have to leave all options on the table, something he will be loath to do. Yet it’s hard to imagine his top two military advisers chose insubordination Wednesday and decided to just speak on their own. The president is preparing for the worst. Said Hagel: “We must prepare for everything.”


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.