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Editorial: On ISIS fight, keep an eye to the future

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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With the United Nations meeting in General Assembly this week, world leaders have their chance to spark action on conflicts raging around the world, from the pathological (Ebola) to the extremes of the ideological in ISIS.

It’s the latter that has demanded the most attention, because of the nature of ISIS’ conquest: It has destroyed revered religious icons, forced thousands from their homes, and seized a wide swath of land in the Middle East that has brought about genuine fears of a brutal new Islamic Caliphate taking hold in the region.

But fighting terrorism is an issue the United States is no stranger to, and Obama’s speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday may have been his strongest yet. Despite spending much of the opening of his speech making reassurances that the U.S. policy would not be reactionary, and not acting against Islam as a religion, he spent the latter half taking a hard-line approach, dubbing ISIS a “network of death” that seems to hark back to his predecessor’s so-called “axis of evil.”

But unlike that “axis” (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), ISIS is taking ground, and doing it fast.  This leaves Obama in a tough position.

One on hand, ISIS seems to be baiting U.S. retaliation in every way it can, with widely publicized videos showing the beheading of American citizens and the wrath its forces have brought upon Iraqi cities. Watching ISIS take these cities with little resistance must weigh heavily on the president, who called Iraq “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” upon the withdrawal of American forces in 2011.

Yet on the other side, he must make the case to an assembly of the world’s nations, many of which are even less ready for another war than the United States. In particular, he needs the support of Arab and Muslim nations in order to ensure the destruction of this “network of death.”

It’s a tightrope that Obama has so far walked well, surprising many pundits with his stark, bold rhetoric. And it has yielded results. A coordinated air-strike campaign with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates launched on Tuesday, bringing the number of strikes the United States has participated in to more than 190 since Aug. 8.

This is in addition to the steps taken at home by the president, who may have found a perfect storm of political will to carry out his mission. Congress has passed his plan to arm certain Syrian rebels to help carry out the fight, pointing to possible future cooperation in whatever this latest Middle East conflict may require.

And that is still where the trouble may lie. Obama has so far been successful in recruiting nations around the world to help carry out the air fight against ISIS, especially Western ones. But if the fighting drags on for years, as some Pentagon officials have warned, public opinion may well turn against the president in his waning days of office, leaving Obama’s successor with a difficult choice to make. Should an unpopular war be continued to accomplish its aims, or would history repeat itself with the United States withdrawing from the region?

Perhaps the overwhelming force from the world working in tandem against ISIS will work wonders, and its tide will begin to recede. But our leaders should keep an eye to the future on the conflict and remember our history.


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