By drawing a bead on the Islamic State group, President Barack Obama has upped the stakes dramatically for the United States. Now it's imperative that we "degrade and ultimately destroy" that marauding terrorist army, as he said we must.
This is a pivotal time in the history of the Middle East. The insurrections of the Arab Spring and the sectarian wars and jihadists roiling the region could upend more regimes and reorder relationships, including those between Arab nations and powers such as China and Russia.
The United States can't control those events. The grievances are too ancient and the rivalries too tangled for any outside actor to resolve. But it's in our national interest to defang the Islamic State group. It has made a fetish of public beheadings and wants to establish a caliphate in a swath of Syria and Iraq sure to become a safe haven for terrorists to train, plot and launch attacks.
Its success would spark even more chaos in a region that is already a tinderbox. Frustrating its statehood aspirations could buy time for less bloodthirsty, more inclusive factions to seek peace. So the Islamic State group must be eliminated as a military force. The way to do that is to reclaim the territory it has seized, choke off its funding and take out its leaders.
If we do anything less now that Obama has declared that intention, respect for U.S. power in the critical, oil-rich Middle East will erode. The ranks of the Islamic State group, which includes some Americans, have swelled since June from 10,000 to as many as 31,500 fighters because of its battlefield triumphs, the CIA said. If a U.S.-led coalition Obama is building fails to beat it back, the group will become an even more powerful magnet for jihadists.
So achieving Obama's limited objective would be important, but alone won't stabilize Syria or the Middle East or set either on a course toward democracy.
Obama is betting that his half-in strategy -- airstrikes in support of Iraqi and Syrian rebel ground forces, but no U.S. combat troops -- will get the job done. You have to hope he's right. That's all the American public is prepared to support. After all, a full-scale ground war in Iraq didn't work out that well. So Obama's decision to employ a counterterrorism strategy against the Islamic State group, rather than a no-holds-barred military campaign, is the right call, although it probably will cost some American lives. But it's a high-stakes gamble. To succeed, some unlikely things will have to happen.
The Iraqi military will have to find the spine to stand and fight. The United States spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraqi troops. But when attacked by the Islamic State group, they dropped their guns and melted away. Relying on them now is a long shot.
The odds are even longer in Syria. Obama is depending on moderate rebels -- unproven fighters in a chaotic, multipronged civil war against Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the Islamic State group is also fighting to oust -- to become an effective military partner capable of taking and holding territory. That's a tall order. If they aren't up to the job, then Assad, whom the United States wants deposed, could be the biggest winner. His forces could fill the void where the Islamic State group is pushed out.
And events we can't control -- for example, the capture of U.S. soldiers or more atrocities against Americans -- could suck us deeper into Syria's civil war. Obama said Wednesday that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight in Iraq or Syria. But the public should be clear-eyed from the start. There could come a time when we will be forced to revisit that pledge. This will be a protracted struggle that Obama's successor will likely inherit.
As for the political wars here at home, congressional leaders said both the Senate and the House of Representatives will vote this week to approve the $500 million Obama wants to train and arm Syrian rebels. That's a refreshing change from the partisan warfare that has crippled this Congress. But at some point it will have to weigh in on the more difficult question of whether to authorize continuing military action in Syria.
Obama has put the nation's muscle and prestige behind a risky strategy to destroy the Islamic State group. Now, we have to do it.