As Washington mulls the most effective strategy for defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the United States marks a poignant anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Once again, it is confronted with the nebulous threat of Islamist militant groups, and their commitment to targeting Western interests and terrorizing entire nations.
It is notable, then, that U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the nation, detailing his plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, only hours before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which changed the course of American policy in the Middle East.
Obama’s own foreign policy – long marked by attempts to disengage from the region – has recently shifted drastically, with his administration’s hands-off approach being increasingly difficult to justify. During his address to the nation on Wednesday, he noted the crucial assistance that the U.S. military has provided to Kurdish forces in Iraq, and that he would “not hesitate to take action” against ISIS in Syria.
Despite the vague details, Obama’s speech undoubtedly underscored a major shift, not just in his own approach to Syria and Iraq, but also with what a war-weary American people have since demanded in a post-9/11 reality. After several years of analysts saying his approach to Syria would allow radical groups to flourish, Obama now recognizes this in both word and action.
At the same time, there has been a significant increase in public support for targeting ISIS. A recent ABC News poll indicated that 71% of Americans support airstrikes against the group in Iraq, a 17% increase in the last three weeks alone. However, whether any concrete goals have been identified in the fight against ISIS remains unclear.
Milena Rodban, a Washington-based independent geopolitical risk consultant, told Al Arabiya News that Obama “continues to try to make his limited strategy fit any situation he faces, instead of letting the situation guide the development of a nuanced strategy.”
This risks further jeopardizing the credibility of his current and future strategy in Syria, as his administration must try to explain why the Free Syrian Army is now more worthy of arms and training than it was years ago. In March, during an interview with Bloomberg View, Obama dismissed those same Syrian fighters, who he will now likely overtly arm, as farmers and engineers “who started out as protesters” and were incapable of ever combating the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Phillip Smyth, a terrorism researcher at the University of Maryland, said Obama’s history of reluctance was born out of a post-9/11 reality, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “crafted a presidency where there was a pushback to earlier policies. Obama’s own worldview aside, many Americans felt that after years of fighting, the best solution was to just pull out and allow other powers to pick up the slack.”
Smyth added that in lieu of the United States “acting unilaterally or leading from the front,” it clearly took a “backseat” approach.
Rodban said: “In many circles, analysts now consider America’s response to 9/11 to be an overreaction that pulled the country into two wars that it couldn’t win, against an amorphous enemy it couldn’t beat. As a candidate, Senator Obama criticized the Bush doctrine and promised to end America’s wars, reverse what he saw as the previous administration’s overreach, and end the notion that the United States is the world’s policeman.” Rodban added that “the Obama doctrine has mainly been defined by what it’s not.”
Regarding the Syrian crisis, Smyth said there was collective “paralysis in many circles, and in others poorly hashed-out strategies” that stemmed from “the will to not really be involved.” He added that “9/11 in some ways blinded policy-makers, since it helped craft a simpler narrative of the United States versus an evil actor.”
Obama’s presidency has been marked by a strong hesitation to engage in any fight that the United States cannot win. However, he may have just entered one against an ambiguous entity and ideology whose very nature makes it virtually impossible to gauge progress or success in defeating.
Despite years of Obama attempting to disengage from the region, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11 his speech highlighted the fact that a U.S. foreign policy marked mostly by inertia has little place long-term in the Middle East.