It took President Barack Obama and his top aides a week to explain that he does in fact have a strategy for confronting the Islamic State militancy. Now he has to prove that he can make it work.
Obama has embarked on building what is basically the third major US-backed international coalition of the past 23 years to take on a challenge emanating from Iraq. The other two were constructed by former presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush against the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Obama’s vision became clearer in the week since he drew criticism for telling a White House news conference that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for taking on the militant group’s safe haven in Syria.
Clearly stung by the criticism, Obama has been proceeding with his usual caution in trying to avoid a scenario in which air strikes are launched but nothing is done to address the political challenges that have given rise to Islamic State.
Obama, a reluctant warrior adamantly set against repeating what he considers the headlong rush into war conducted by his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, is basing his coalition on what a variety of countries can bring to the table in dismantling Islamic State and its drive for a Caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria.
What US officials are unclear on is whether Western allies and Arab states will join the United States in launching air strikes. So far their emphasis has been on plans to train, advise, assist and equip Iraqi forces and moderate Sunni rebels.
A central pillar of Obama’s strategy is to ensure Iraq’s new prime minister can form a unity government soon, perhaps next week, that shares power with Sunnis so that they will be more inclined to oppose Islamic State.
Obama would like Gulf Arab states to consider military action, but also to support Sunni moderates in Iraq and Syria who can challenge Islamic State for supremacy. He also wants Islamic State’s sources of funding cut off.
And he wants NATO ally Turkey to help prevent foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to Islamic State from crossing through Turkey on their way to their home countries, where they might launch civilian attacks.
The next major milestone in forming the coalition will come later in September when Obama convenes a security conference on the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York.
“We must be able to have a plan together by the time we come to UNGA, we need to have this coalesce,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “We need a clarity to the strategy, and a clarity to what everybody is going to undertake.”
Kerry travels to Saudi Arabia and Jordan next week for talks with Gulf leaders to determine whether they are prepared to back up their anti-jihadist rhetoric with action.
Some may be able to participate in military action as they did in Libya and US officials are trying to judge how each country might be best placed to help, a senior administration official said.
Obama was buoyed by a clear unanimity from the alliance at a NATO summit in Wales, feeling it is proof that his deliberate approach works. But the hard part will be when the allies get down to the specifics of who does what.
“Our goal is to act with urgency, but also to make sure that we’re doing it right,” Obama said on Friday.
Obama still has not decided whether to launch strikes at Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, resisting pressure from some Republicans and even some fellow Democrats who see him as too cautious.
Before taking that step, he wants to make sure moderate Syrian rebels are in good enough shape to hold ground cleared by air strikes.
Obama’s varying descriptions of how to confront Islamic State have contributed to a perception among critics that he has been unsure how to proceed, and have raised doubts about his handling of foreign policy.
In the past week he has declared that the group must be “degraded and destroyed” while at the same time reduced to a “manageable problem”.
In fact, Obama’s rhetoric has gone full circle on the threat from Islamic State. In a New Yorker magazine six months ago, he called the Islamist militants the “JV team”, which is short for “junior varsity” and means they are not the best players on the field.
He was moved to taking the group more seriously during the summer when militants suddenly made huge gains in Iraq, threatening the US-backed Iraqi government.
It forced Obama to focus again on Iraq and a war he campaigned to end.