WASHINGTON — He came into office with a pledge to keep American troops out of foreign wars, but President Obama spent this week pleading with U.S. lawmakers to back his plan to “destroy” the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist organization that controls a broad swath of territory in Iraq and Syria.
On Sept. 17, House members voted to authorize Obama’s plan to train and arm a “moderate” Syrian rebel group, and on Sept. 18, the U.S. Senate approved a similarly narrow measure. Both were embedded in spending bills that kept the government afloat through September. But neither body has engaged in a comprehensive debate about the president’s new plans for countering IS aggression, and such a debate will likely not come until after the midterm elections.
Obama has called for stepped-up U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the training and equipping of “moderate” rebels that oppose the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and military collaboration with local Arab nations, who now view the Islamic State as a threat to regional stability.
These steps are necessary, said Obama in a Sept. 10 speech, because “our own safety, our own security, depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation and uphold the values that we stand for.”
During that address, the president said his new military policy was also a response to the Islamic State’s brutal treatment of religious minorities, including “tens of thousands of Christians,” who have faced forced conversion, rape and execution.
Practical and Moral Questions
But over the past week, lawmakers and expert analysts have raised practical and moral questions about his goals and tactics. Many criticize Obama for failing to develop a plan that that will effectively deploy American military power to stop a terrorist organization that is rapidly gaining ground.
National Review columnist Victor Davis Hanson said Obama has yet to offer a coherent strategy to counter the terrorist group in Syria, where the White House has tapped the Free Syrian Army to receive training and arms.
“The president hinges our hopes on the ground on the Free Syrian Army — which he [once dismissed] as an inexperienced group of doctors and farmers whose utility was mostly a ‘fantasy,'” noted Hanson in a Sept. 18 column.
Others questioned whether Obama would fulfill his promise to keep U.S. troops off the ground in Iraq or Syria.
“I am not sending your son, your daughter over to the middle of that chaos,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., after Thursday’s Senate vote.
Obama tried to address such concerns when he visited MacDill Air Force Base on Sept. 17 to repeat his pledge and outline his plans for building an international coalition, without providing many details.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” said the president.
But as the president repeated his pledge, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. ground forces might be needed if the American-led coalition failed to stop the militant Islamists.
The general’s remarks revealed the difficulty of fine-tuning war plans in a democracy where many citizens view such actions as counterproductive.
Such calculations are also at the center of Catholic just-war theory, which provides a moral framework for evaluating the conduct of war, including the means and goals for stopping unjust aggression.
If the cause is just — such as a nation’s defense of its borders — government leaders must still consider other questions: Can the war be won? How can the aggression be stopped without the targeting of civilians?
Bradley Lewis, associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, said just-war teaching would support the broad outlines of the president’s plan to stop the Islamic State and defend vulnerable religious minorities.
“There is practically universal agreement that self-defense would count here, but many would also approve of helping allies or the innocent victims of aggression,” Lewis told the Register.
“Many Catholic ethicists would support some version of what is now called ‘responsibility to protect’ as fitting under this heading. Even the Holy Father seemed to express some support for this notion recently.”
When asked to comment on other aspects of the president’s plan, such as the pledge not to involve U.S. troops in a ground war, Lewis responded that such matters were beyond the purview of just-war teaching.
As Lewis noted, Catholic Church leaders, including Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops, have spoken out in favor of limited military intervention to “stop” IS, but they oppose unilateral action by Washington.
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Pope Francis stated, when asked if he supported U.S. airstrikes in Iraq during an Aug. 18 press conference on his return flight from Korea. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I don’t say ‘to bomb’ or ‘make war,’ [but] ‘stop it.’”
Steve Colecchi, the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that the U.S. bishops have been careful to follow the lead of the Holy See.
“The USCCB has urged protection for people in both in Syria and Iraq who have been displaced by the fighting,” said Colecchi.
“We believe that any use of force should be proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians.”
The White House’s efforts to forego unilateral action in favor of collaboration with regional allies drew support from the bishops, who have deplored the unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Whenever Washington weighs military action far from its shores, Colecchi suggested, it “should get support and coordinate with the United Nations and the international community.
“That is the one piece the president’s statement was weak on: It talked about what the U.S. would do, but it didn’t talk about” how military planning would adhere “to international and humanitarian law,” Colecchi noted.
The Obama administration, in fact, has been actively engaged in seeking broad support for its plans. Next week, the president will address the United Nations Security Council on this issue.
However, while there is growing international support for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, whose government requested outside help to counter IS fighters, U.S. allies are still weighing how to proceed in Syria, where the Assad government has not asked for such assistance.
“The White House has articulated no rationale for airstrikes on Syrian territory, nor has it sought a Security Council resolution to authorize going to war. Syria has not consented to strikes within its territory,” The New York Times reported on Sept. 19.
Meanwhile, tensions could arise between U.S. military planners and the newly formed Iraq government, which has barred its own air force from conducting airstrikes in urban areas, where IS fighters are positioned. The U.S. Air Force is said to be better equipped to avoid attacks on civilians, but the issue could grow in importance as the U.S. campaign expands.
At present, Church-affiliated relief agencies in Iraq are also assessing the airstrikes’ likely impact on the country’s humanitarian crisis. More than 1 million Christians have been displaced as a result of terrorist aggression, with many seeking shelter in overcrowded camps in Kurdistan.
Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), said the situation on the ground remains “fluid,” and she emphasized that Washington’s policy in the region must include the protection of vulnerable religious communities, who still face threats from the Islamic State.
“It is essential that the U.S. government, working with Iraqi and other governments, ensure the safety of … all affected by the violence,” Woo told the Register.
“This includes sufficient resources to assist those seeking shelter in [refugee] camps and within host communities.”
Skepticism About Protection of Christians
The president has promised that humanitarian assistance will be part of his plan for dealing with the Islamist militants. But some experts expressed skepticism about the president’s promise to protect Iraqi Christians.
“He and his administration have stood silent while hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven from Iraq and Syria. Why should we credit his ‘assurances’ now?” said Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and a former diplomat.
Obama has said his broader strategic plan will also address the ideological threat posed by the Islamic State, which has recruited new fighters from the Middle East and the West by showing video images of the beheadings of civilians, including two U.S. journalists.
But Farr told the Register that he disagreed with Obama’s apparent unwillingness to address the religious elements of the group’s extremist ideology.
In his Sept. 10 speech outlining his plans to “destroy” IS, the president said the terrorist organization was “not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
The president said the Islamic State was “a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
Farr argued that the White House should confront, rather than dismiss, the group’s brand of Islamic extremism.
“IS is merely one outcropping of an international ‘cancer’ that has many other manifestations around the world,” he said.
For now, foreign-policy analysts say a critical challenge for the president is to build an international coalition that can defeat the Islamic State, though many question whether he can stick to his pledge to keep U.S. troops out of combat.
And with the fresh support of Congress, a reluctant commander in chief must marshal the American public, his generals and his allies behind a plan for victory intended to help restore stability to a region in chaos. Soon enough, his strategy will be put to the test, as a formidable enemy continues to consolidate power, drawing recruits from across the globe, including the U.S.
“American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” said Obama in his Sept. 10 address to the nation. “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.