Last night, Barack Obama promised America that he would take the fight to ISIS/ISIL, using a four-pronged strategy that he laid out in his much-anticipated war speech. In each phase of this strategy, Obama insisted, we would be “joined by a broad coalition of partners,” emphases mine:
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. …
This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners. Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq; sending arms and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian opposition; sharing intelligence; and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and supporting their efforts to promote unity, and in the coming days he will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands. This is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom; and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.
How broad? Well, at least on Phase One, our closest strategic ally is saying no thanks:
Britain’s foreign secretary says his country won’t participate in airstrikes on Syria, following an announcement from Washington that it would begin hitting targets inside the country.
Speaking Thursday after talks with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Philip Hammond said Britain won’t be “revisiting” the issue after Parliament decided last year against participating in airstrikes.
For that matter, Germany has also demurred from Phase One as it relates to striking ISIS in Syria:
The foreign ministers of Germany and Britain said on Thursday they would not be taking part in air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State militant group.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a news conference in Berlin that Germany has not been asked to take part in the air strikes and would not be participating. “To quite clear, we have not been asked to do so and neither will we do so,” Steinmeier said.
I’m old enough to remember when not having France in the coalition was enough to discredit George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” France has been at many times a balky ally, but Germany has been more consonant with American policy — and the UK practically our twin on global security. This sounds like a NATO split, which would come at a very bad time indeed for Europe as it faces a resurgent and aggressive Russian threat.
More to the point, though, what does this say about Obama’s strategic preparation? Did he bother to check in with the Brits and the Germans before pledging his “broad coalition of partners” last night? It would appear not, and that Obama just assumed that they would follow whatever plan he laid out last night. Obama could have framed the Syrian phase separately as a uniquely American security concern and set expectations properly. Instead, it looks as though Obama and his political team wrote a speech without building the necessary commitment from allies to allow them to be part of a united front on global security.
And what does that say about the rest of Obama’s claims in the speech?
Of course, the Arab League pledged to confront ISIS militarily, financially, and economically, and could provide Obama with some claim to a “broad coalition” — assuming that they can be counted on to do more than talk. John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia pitching for more assistance today:
U.S. and Arab diplomats moved swiftly Thursday to rally military and financial backing for a wider international assault against Islamic State militants.
Following up on President Obama’s call to arms against the network that has laid claim to a third of the territory of Iraq and Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was meeting here with diplomats from across the Middle East.
The group is considering expanded military help such as more bases for airstrikes and new Arab training initiatives for Syrian rebels fighting the Islamists as well as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The Saudis wanted the air strikes on Assad last year, and got angry when the US balked at the plan. Now we’re bombing ISIS rather than Assad, but Kerry still wants a quid pro quo, and will likely get something. But if he’s hoping for boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria to fight against ISIS, Kerry’s likely to come away disappointed, and boots on the ground is what will be needed to “roll back” the gains made by ISIS, another pledge in Obama’s speech last night.