President Barack Obama plans to address the nation tomorrow to lay out his strategy for defeating ISIS, the radical Islamist group whose gruesome beheadings and mass killings have terrorized tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians in the areas it controls. The actions he is expected to propose will take time to work and require strong American leadership to build the kind of broad-based coalition needed to confront ISIS' battle-hardened militants. But they are also the result of a realistic assessment of the threat, and they can succeed given a sustained commitment to finish the job on the part of the U.S. and its allies.
For weeks Mr. Obama has been under intense pressure to reverse ISIS' recent military successes aimed at establishing a cross-border Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. Critics have charged that he's been more interested in improving his golf game than in preventing the ISIS advance, or that he's so detached from the imperatives of foreign policy that he sees the possibility of the Middle East going up in flames as no big deal as long as American citizens aren't directly threatened. But the proposals he is expected to unveil tomorrow show the president not only has thought long and hard about his options but that he has concluded — rightly in our view — that there's no quick fix for the problems the region faces.
Instead, Mr. Obama will frankly acknowledge to the American people that defeating ISIS will require a years-long effort involving all the nation's political, diplomatic and military resources. Victory cannot be achieved with a few airstrikes — or even a few hundred — as the president's critics seem to think, and it's not a job the U.S. can take on alone. As such, Mr. Obama has been working behind the scenes to assemble a powerful coalition of NATO and Arab countries to degrade and eventually destroy ISIS' ability to launch attacks or hold territory.
On the political and diplomatic front, Mr. Obama has enlisted the countries of the Arab League, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, to aid in undercutting the financial infrastructure and recruiting networks that support ISIS' reign of terror. The State Department has already launched a hard-hitting Internet messaging campaign to encourage the disaffected young men from among whom ISIS draws its fighters to think twice before joining its ranks.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Obama is also pressuring Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al Abadi, to form a government in which all his country's ethnic and sectarian groups are represented. It's vital that Iraq's Sunni minority, which felt marginalized and persecuted under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, be persuaded it has a stake in defending the new government, as it did when its tribesmen took up arms against al-Qaida during the Sunni Awakening in 2005.
On the military front, Mr. Obama envisions Iraq's Sunni tribes, along with Kurdish pesh merga militias and Iraqi army special forces, as forming the shock troops in the ground war against ISIS. They will be supported by American and allied airstrikes on ISIS fighters, vehicles, artillery, military supply dumps and command and control centers on the ground. The goal of the combined air and ground operations will be to systematically degrade the group's military assets and gradually eliminate it altogether as an effective fighting force, without putting American boots on the ground.
None of what the president is proposing will be easy, and it won't happen overnight. ISIS is still a formidable adversary, and it remains willing to employ unspeakable violence to achieve its aims. It will take patience and steadfastness to drive it from the territories it has conquered, and the job may not be finished by the time Mr. Obama leaves office. But ISIS is not invincible, and the forces the president has deployed to hasten its demise ultimately have a good chance of prevailing against the group's brutal methods and nihilistic philosophy no matter how resilient it proves to be on the battlefield.
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