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Originally published Friday, September 12, 2014 at 4:07 PM

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Critique on foreign policy and Islamic State from an Obama fan

We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action, writes syndicated columnist Nicholas Kristof.


Syndicated columnist

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I’m probably one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for President Obama’s foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.

His “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State group and President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Dismissing the Islamic State as a “JV team,” as Obama did in January, was silly — compounded by the White House’s contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government’s policy impossible to defend.

The tragedy in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, but that of Syrians; still, the president has been painfully passive toward what has unfolded.

And, yes, that’s the judgment of an Obama fan.

So it’s just as well that the president is trying for a reset — oops, wrong word — let’s just say “a new strategy” in Syria.

“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared in his speech Wednesday night. He described it as a “counterterrorism campaign” that would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.

There’s some inconsistency there. Counterterrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it’s unlikely to destroy the Islamic State any more than it did the Taliban or militancy in Yemen.

Indeed, the president, in his speech, said that his strategy in Syria “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That’s a plausible comparison, but Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.

Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse.

My take is that Obama is right to expand military action against the Islamic State into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. The Islamic State is a proper target, having butchered Americans, dismembered Iraq and attempted genocide against minorities like the Yazidis.

A 17-year-old Yazidi girl told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in a phone call that she was being kept by the Islamic State as a sex slave along with many others. The newspaper got her cellphone number from her parents, who are in a refugee camp.

The Islamic State also could pose a terror threat within the United States. At least 100 and perhaps many more Americans have traveled to Syria to join jihadi groups, and some could return to carry out attacks.

So striking the Islamic State in Syria makes sense, but we also have to recognize that airstrikes will be of limited benefit and carry real risks as well.

“We’re going to war because we’ve been spooked,” notes Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “But if we do it wrong, we could ensure that the violence spreads.”

One danger is that if our bombs kill innocents, the Islamic State would use its video-making and social media skills to galvanize the Sunni Islam world, saying the American “infidels” who are slaughtering Sunni children must be punished. That’s why it’s crucial to have Sunni partners, including United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of airstrikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are many fewer of them now than there were two years ago.

Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official says that the White House will try to expand support. But there’s a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of the Islamic State but to the creation of another Somalia.

So let’s move ahead with eyes wide open. We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.



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