President Obama would rather have been anywhere else on Earth but at that White House podium Wednesday night unveiling a new counterterror strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.
The speech — given in the shadow of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — cut sharply counter to the “wishful-thinking” narrative the president has been peddling about our national security, especially violent Islamist extremism.
As the president spoke, you couldn’t help but think about how he has told us over the years, among other things, that we left Iraq “stable and self-reliant,” al-Qaeda was on the run, and the Islamic State was a junior varsity terrorist organization.
So much for those fairy tales.
Listening to the president’s speech in light of what we’ve been spoon-fed previously left you to wonder whether he’s finally coming to grips with what many have been seeing for a long time — the surging threat of the Islamic State.
Of course, the good news is that we finally have a strategy.
That certainly is progress, considering the president admitted a few weeks ago that we didn’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with the Islamic State, a situation that caused shock, disbelief — even panic.
But with any plan, implementation is key.
Like with most of his foreign policy dealings, the president will be both cautious and incremental. Indeed, the administration will likely take a step-by-step approach to upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria, hoping each new step will be the “clincher.”
In Iraq, the president plans to continue to depend on the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to carry the brunt of the campaign against the Islamic State, bolstered by U.S. intelligence, weapons, training, advisers and air strikes.
On Syria, the president will be even more careful about opening an air campaign; while the Islamic State is running amok in Iraq, its headquarters is in Raqqa, Syria, in the northern part of that country, making the city a prime target.
But outside of strikes on Islamic State leaders like leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or known, direct threats/plots to U.S. interests overseas or the homeland, widespread bombing in Syria is unlikely — for the moment.
One can comfortably conclude that the president and his staff have been mugged by the reality of the growing threat coming from the Islamic State, although I believe the White House is downplaying the threat to the homeland.
We should be thankful for a major change in policy, although it’s unclear whether the president was pushed to act by the sorry situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria or his plunging foreign policy approval polls.
That perhaps unknowable answer aside, we still should be deeply concerned with how the White House characterized the threat until now, was clearly slow to recognize the need for action and even more delayed in developing a strategy.
The burning question: Is the plan too little, too late?
- Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Originally appeared in The Boston Herald