Obama's Choice

Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Drew Christiansen

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President Obama can't get a break. His critics won't let up caricaturing him as a feckless failure without the resolve for an all-out war against the Islamic State group.

Worse still, he squanders opportunities to make the case for his administration's strategy. His Oval Office address to the nation December 6 was a disengaged recitation of generalities, without specifics. It lacked the narrative and rhetorical force needed to uplift and engage the audience in the cause.

Oratory has been one of President Obama's strengths, both at high-profile moments like his early address to Muslims in Cairo and his Prague address on nuclear disarmament, and also too at moments of crisis like the killings at Charleston's Mother Emmanuel church last June.

In an age of GOP primary demagoguery, his no-drama governing style may be the antidote the nation needs in handling as complicated a web of problems as the dissolution of the Middle East as we have known it. The public would be helped though, if not by eloquent appeals for victory over the Islamic State group, then, at least by a plain-spoken explanation of his policy in Syria and in the war against IS.

The policy needs to be sold to many of his supporters and to the wider public who, as our leading demagogue put it, are trying to figure out "what is going on."

On Dec. 7 on the website of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart offered a sensitive analysis of Obama's policy toward ISIS. He wrote, "Unlike (Sen. Marco) Rubio," he explains, "[Mr. Obama] considers violent jihadism a small toxic strain within Islamic civilization, not a civilization itself. And unlike (former President George W.) Bush, he doesn't consider it a serious ideological competitor," like fascism in the 30s and 40s or Communism during the Cold War.

This line of thinking is closer to Europe, which is also suffering from the same small toxic strain. As Olivier Roy, the French authority on political Islam, recently said, "this is not so much the radicalization of Islam as the Islamicization of radicalism."

As to the military strategy, the always well-informed Washington Post columnist David Ignatius identifies the hole in Obama's strategy: "Sunni ground force." "… [W]orking with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country," as Mr. Obama said, "that is how we'll achieve a more sustainable victory." But with the exception of both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, who don't and should not want to stabilize the Sunni heartland, committed Sunni fighters are not to be found.

The Syrian Kurds, however, whose home is the borderland of northern Syria just south of the Turkish frontier, are a bright spot in the local opposition to the Islamic State group. According to Jonathan Steele, who reviews Michael Gunter's Out of Nowhere: The Kurds in Peace and War in the New York Review of Books, they are on the edge of sealing the Turkish border, both liberating their own land and also cutting off infiltration routes for fresh fighters through Turkey to the Islamic State group.

The Syrian Kurds are one reason for Mr. Obama's confidence that his strategy is working. But organizing wider, Arab Sunni resistance will take time.

The regional powers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran are playing a number of games. Their competition with one another has been a major factor fueling extremism. In the recent past, they have been opposed to some extremists, but not their own. Iran continues to be interested in sustaining Syria's Shiites and Alawites, Bashar al-Assad's sect with ties to Shiism.

The Saudis and Qataris, alarmed at the resurgence of Shiism in the region, want to restore Sunni dominance over the majority Shia in Iraq and to impose Sunni hegemony over Syria, even if it means forming some unsavory alliances with jihadist Sunni armed groups on the ground.

To give the problem still another twist, Saudis and Qataris each want to impose their own chosen leaders on a Sunni restoration.

It is true that the situation in Syria worsened while President Obama struggled with developing a coherent and effective policy. Now however, Obama's multi-sided plan with bombing, U.S. special forces and local fighters like the Syrian Kurdish Protection Force has a chance of containing and reducing the Islamic State group. But no policy will succeed without Sunni self-help.

This self-help will require two very difficult diplomatic moves: Convincing the Sunni regional powers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to stop turning a blind eye to -- or allowing -- the funding and arming of jihadist military groups; and bridging the Sunni-Shia divide between the Saudis and Iranians.

These are problems which Mr. Obama's patience and Secretary Kerry's diligence may yet resolve. But they will be hampered by the foreign policy establishment's reluctance to confront the Turks, Saudis and Qataris because of the feeling that 'better the devil you know than what might follow.'

We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to regional policies that are short-sighted and only create much larger future problems. Whether the role of Gulf states in the spread of Islamic extremism, the proxy war in Yemen, or the obsession of Turkey with quashing any future Kurdish state, such policies have helped create the chaos in which the Islamic State group is currently thriving.

If Obama's strategy against IS ends up succeeding it will be an impressive addition to a presidency with impressive achievements such as health care reform, the Paris climate agreement, rapprochement with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran.

[Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator. Jesuit Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University.]

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