The vacation season is ending for many of us, including President Barack Obama, who has delayed — for weeks — some very difficult decisions about how the United States should respond to aggressions in the Middle East and Ukraine. But now it is deciding time.
Although they go against his nature — and earlier campaign promises — Obama seems certain to come down on the side of interventions he would not have contemplated even a few weeks ago. Sometimes events take us where we do not want to go and this is one of those occasions. Here are some of the presidential decisions that need making:
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq (a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL) now controls upwards of 35,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq. It has modern arms, many seized from U.S. stockpiles in Iraq; ample financing from its seizures of oil fields and banks, as well as kidnapping ransoms and Gulf state subsidies; and the avowed purpose of establishing a terrorist caliphate in the region and bringing bloody havoc to the U.S and Western Europe.
Until recently Obama has talked of "containment" of ISIS. Using words he no doubt now regrets, the president had characterized ISIS as a "JV" (as in junior varsity) threat, which brings to mind images of 19th-century tribal uprisings on the periphery of empire. But its growing strength and rapid gains have made clear that ISIS cannot be contained; it must be defeated and destroyed.
The President also stated earlier that the U.S. would not ride to the rescue until or unless Iraq's government under Nouri al-Maliki broadened its base. A successor government is now in place, but it will be many months before credible new policies can be implemented. The administration now realizes that ISIS poses a direct threat to regional stability and American vital interests and must be stopped, regardless of the composition of any regime in Baghdad.
A prospective U.S. intervention would not involve combat "boots on the ground," except for advisors, forward observers and air traffic controllers. It would involve intensive bombing of ISIS bases, supply lines and forces in Syria and Iraq to give breathing room to besieged areas in the region; to facilitate the escape of refugees; and to provide time for the assemblage of military, financial and diplomatic tools aimed at longer-term eradication of ISIS.
The President also faces difficult decisions relating to homeland security and the American Muslim community. Experts estimate that several hundred ISIS fighters are carrying U.S. or Western European passports and could reenter the West and undertake terror. ISIS, through its websites, has made explicit threats about strikes here, accompanied by photos of the White House and a Chicago office tower.
The U.S. Muslim community, estimated at 7 million, is far more moderate and tolerant than those elsewhere. Yet, if only one percent of that population is susceptible to radical messages, that is 70,000 potential recruits. The Tsarnaev brothers, charged in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, came to the U.S. on tourist visas and then applied for political asylum. They were aided by others enrolled as college students. How many other Tsarnaevs, or potential Tsarnaevs, are among us?
There will not, nor should there be roundups of Muslim citizens in the U.S. But we can expect tightened monitoring of American Muslims who enter and leave the country and, no doubt, of those who preach radicalism in mosques or in social media. The risks of a 9/11 replay are too great to act otherwise.
Obama began his presidency by pledging a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations. The U.S. and its NATO allies accepted — passively — Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. But, right now, Russian forces are directly and indirectly waging war in that country. Financial and economic sanctions have clearly not stopped Putin, who no doubt regards them as likely to disappear over time.
Putin wants to restore the former Soviet Union's empire and control over neighboring states. That means reabsorbing countries like Ukraine or, failing that, taking chunks of its territory and/or establishing puppet regimes in its capitals. As many previous aggressors, Putin is playing the game as it comes, taking what he can until someone stops him. If he is not stopped, he'll just keep taking.
Poland and the Baltic states are properly worried about their own security. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but the U.S. and its NATO partners almost surely will be forced now to send modern military equipment, materiel and advisors to its aid, rather than merely sharing intelligence or talking about new non-military sanctions. If Russian forces continue to violate Ukraine's borders, Putin must know that tactical airstrikes against them might follow.
Two political generations of Americans properly have said "no more Vietnams," expressing their unwillingness to get involved in places where U.S. vital interests clearly were not at stake. This has been reinforced by oppostion from Obama and others to former president George W. Bush's intervention in Iraq, undertaken to stop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs which no longer existed there.
Obama has made clear his distaste for, in his words, "doing dumb things" in peripheral areas. He, however, found himself doing exactly that by waging war against Libya and getting involved In regime changes which increased, rather than reduced, instability in the Middle East. Putin has clearly read Obama's desire for a "reset" as weakness and aimed to take advantage of it.
That brings us to the present. It is difficult to imagine any modern U.S. president, even Jimmy Carter, who would not at this point opt for decisions that promise to defeat rather than contain ISIS and stop Russian aggression now rather than later. Over the next several days President Obama is almost certain to confer with congressional leaders and, then, to go on national television to explain why we must do difficult things now to avoid facing more difficult situations later.