The so-called Islamic State has left destruction everywhere that it has gained ground. As in the case of the tribal Scythians, Vandals, Huns or Mongols of the past, though, sowing chaos in its wake does not mean that the Islamic State won’t continue to seek new targets for its devastation.
If unchecked, the Islamic State will turn what is left of the nations of the Middle East into a huge Mogadishu-like tribal wasteland, from the Syrian Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. They will happily call the resulting mess a caliphate.
It is critical for United States to put together some sort of alliance of friendly Middle East governments and European states to stop the Islamic State before it becomes a permanent base for terrorist operations against the United States and its allies. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that America will line up a muscular alliance — at least until the Islamic State reaches the gates of Baghdad or plows on through to Saudi Arabia and forces millions of Arabs either to fight or submit.
Why the reluctance for allies to join the United States?
Most in the Middle East and Europe do not believe the Obama administration knows much about the Islamic State, much less what to do about it. The president has dismissed it in the past as a JV group that could be managed, contradicting the more dire assessments of his own secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Mr. Obama finally promised to destroy the Islamic State, Secretary of State John F. Kerry almost immediately backtracked that idea of a full-blown war. Current CIA Director John O. Brennan once dismissed as absurd any idea of Islamic terrorists seeking a modern caliphate. It may be absurd, but it is now also all too real.
Such confusion sadly is not new. The president hinges our hopes on the ground on the Free Syrian Army — which he chose not to help when it once may have been viable. And not long ago, he dismissed it as an inexperienced group of doctors and farmers whose utility was mostly a “fantasy.”
No ally is quite sure of what Mr. Obama wants to do about Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom he once threatened to bomb for using chemical weapons, before backing off.
Potential allies also feel that the Obama administration will get them involved in an operation only to either lose interest or leave them hanging. When Mr. Obama entered office in 2009, Iraq was mostly quiet. Both the president and Vice President Joe Biden soon announced it secure and stable. Then they simply pulled out all U.S. troops, bragged during their re-election campaign that they had ended the war, and let our Iraqi and Kurdish allies fend for themselves against suddenly emboldened Islamic terrorists.
In Libya, the administration followed the British and French lead in bombing Moammar Gadhafi’s regime out of power — but then failed to help dissidents fight opportunistic Islamists. The result was the Benghazi disaster, a caricature of a strategy dubbed “leading from behind,” and an Afghanistan-like failed state facing Europe across the Mediterranean.
Now, the president claims authorization to bomb the Islamic State based on a 13-year-old joint resolution — a Bush administration-sponsored effort that Mr. Obama himself had often criticized. If the president cannot make a new case to Congress and the American people for bombing the Islamic State, then allies will assume that he cannot build an effective coalition either.
Finally, potential allies doubt that the United States wants to be engaged abroad. They are watching China flex its muscles in the South China Sea. They have not yet seen a viable strategy to stop the serial aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Iran seems to consider U.S. deadlines to stop nuclear enrichment in the same manner that Mr. Assad scoffed at administration red lines. With Egypt, the administration seemed confused about whether to support the tottering Hosni Mubarak government, the radical Muslim Brotherhood or the junta of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — only at times to oppose all three.
Mr. Obama himself seems disengaged, if not bored, with foreign affairs. After publicly deploring the beheading of American journalist James Foley, Mr. Obama hit the golf course. When the media reported the disconnect, he scoffed that it was just bad “optics.”
There is a legitimate debate about the degree to which the United States should conduct a pre-emptive war to stop the Islamic State before it gobbles up any more nations. So far, the president has not entered that debate, much less won it.
No wonder, then, that potential allies do not quite know what the United States is doing, how long America will fight, and what will happen to U.S. allies when we likely get tired, quit and leave.
For now, most allies are sitting tight and waiting for pre-emptive, unilateral U.S. action. If we begin defeating the Islamic State, they may eventually join in on the kill; if not, they won’t.
That is a terrible way to wage coalition warfare, but we are reaping what we have sown.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.