First, the president needs to level with the American people in a way that he has thus far avoided. He must identify Islamist radicalism as the country’s primary enemy and explain why and how its rise in the Middle East would pose a serious threat to the American homeland far beyond any threat ever posed by Al Qaeda. He should say that America must shoulder the burden of maintaining global stability and that it must act always in its own national interest, which begins with the protection of American sovereignty and American lives. He should abandon the nostrums of Wilsonism and concentrate on the United States’ national interest. This isn’t about democracy or pluralism or any kind of springtime in Arabia. It is about power and the need for America to use its power to prevent Islamist radicalism from establishing a military and geopolitical presence in the Middle East.
Second, he should clear the decks diplomatically, extricating the country from foreign controversies that lack strategic significance and serve to divert attention and resources from the immediate ISIS threat. This means negotiating an end to the unfortunate confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. It is a distraction that never made sense, but now carries too high a price. Ukraine has no strategic significance to the United States and little to Europe. It has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence for 350 years. The outlines of an agreement are clear: America and the West will cease efforts to pull Ukraine into Europe and forswear any interest in getting Ukraine into NATO. Russia will accept a Western-oriented government in Kiev, so long as eastern Ukraine is granted a significant degree of cultural and governmental autonomy. Sanctions will be removed. And the two countries will explore mutual interests, including their interest in preventing a serious rise of Islamist fundamentalism. It’s difficult to see how any of this would clash with vital U.S. strategic interests.