Necessity, it’s said, is the mother of invention. For Barack Obama, it might be the mother of leadership. Necessity finally forced Obama to recognize the genocidal threat rising from the desert in Iraq and Syria, necessity forced Obama to design a strategy to deal with it, and finally the necessities of its underlying causes forced the new war President to deal honestly with it at the United Nations.
This particular mantle of leadership wasn’t exactly what Obama wanted for his second term, but the last few weeks have wrought a sea change in the ship of state at the White House. As late as June, the official line on the terrorist army ISIS was that it was a local threat, or regional at worst, which the Iraqi military could handle.
President Obama dismissed them in January as “jayvees” to core al-Qaeda, which the US continued to claim was still “on the run” after the death of Osama bin Laden three years earlier. The conflict brimming in Gaza, which would explode into another chapter of war later in the month, had most of the administration’s attention for that region, and what was left focused mainly on the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria.
Even after ISIS broke out of Syria to begin its genocidal sweep across northern Iraq, the White House sounded curiously passive about the emergence of an army of Islamist extremists. While Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Qatar and Israel to deal with the Gaza war, ISIS pushed hundreds of thousands of Christians from their ancient communities in Mosul and the province of Nineveh, creating a flood of refugees into the Kurdish autonomous zone.
Obama refused to respond to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pleas for military assistance, insisting that Iraqis complete the transition away from Maliki before the US would act, even as the humanitarian crisis was unfolding north and west of Baghdad.
Only when the world finally demanded protection for the tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, as ISIS threatened to annihilate them in a gruesome campaign of starvation, did Obama finally order air strikes that allowed Kurdish forces to break the siege. Shortly afterward, the US conducted more air strikes to help the Kurds retake the Mosul Dam and prevent a catastrophe that could have cost 500,000 lives.
Still, Obama appeared to remain in denial that American leadership would be needed to fight ISIS until well after the terrorists decapitated two abducted American journalists for propaganda videos. At a press conference during late August, the media began pressing Obama for his strategy to deal with the threat, at which time the President admitted that he had no strategy yet.
One month after that Kinsleyan gaffe, Obama has changed directions almost entirely. Initially, the US stepped up air strikes against ISIS only in Iraq, and only after the Iraqi parliament finally replaced Maliki with Haider al-Abadi. That strategy, while tactically effective in slowing ISIS’ expansion toward Baghdad, didn’t stop it from expanding elsewhere from its command-and-control base in Raqqa, a key city in eastern Syria.
Obama initially resisted air strikes in Syria. Even in his prime-time address in September, Obama focused more on training the Iraqi army to fight ISIS and only considered air strikes on Syria as a possibility for a “counterterrorism campaign.” Obama held out Yemen as a success story for his approach to counterterrorism, a country where terrorists staged a coup less than two weeks later.
A week after that speech, the White House treated Syrian air strikes as so unlikely that Barack Obama himself would have to personally approve each target before agreeing to engage there.
When the strikes came, though, they much more closely resembled a military offensive rather than the “counterterrorism campaign” the White House had promised just a few days earlier. Admiral John Kirby told CNN on Wednesday as the strikes continued, “It’s an offensive campaign now,” and that the Obama administration would not “be constrained by that border between Iraq and Syria.”
With his speech at the UN, the transformation to a war President was seemingly complete. In place of the half-hearted and cautious rhetoric about humanitarian interventions and the need for a more humble approach, Obama defiantly challenged the world to join the US in the long fight against ISIS – and beyond that, Islamism in all of its violent manifestations. “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil,” Obama said of ISIS after reciting a list of atrocities still unfolding where they control ground. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”
After reciting the usual caveats about not being at war with Islam, complete with the now-familiar reminder that millions of Muslims call America their home, Obama demanded that nations of the General Assembly stop funding, nurturing, and protecting those espousing the Islamist ideology on which ISIS and al-Qaeda operates. “It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL,” Obama declared.
“That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate. It’s time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy, and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down.” That is a direct, if unnamed, challenge to some of the same nations that the White House celebrated as members of their anti-ISIS coalition, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter of which funds and protects Hamas.
That’s not to say that Obama’s speech didn’t have a few clunkers that dented the serious turn he took against Islamist terrorism. For some reason, Obama felt compelled to include a nonsensical allusion to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri as an example of how the US struggles with ethnic and racial issues, seemingly asserting a parallel between a disputed police shooting and massive genocide, ethnic cleansing, and sexual enslavement.
The White House demonstrated its usual subpar research skills by having Obama cite Sheikh bin Bayyah as a figure of peace after which the State Department had to repeatedly apologize when it came out that Bayyah had issued a fatwah in 2004 urging Iraqis to kill US soldiers. In 2009, another Bayyah fatwa prohibited “all forms of normalization with Israel.” Using Bayyah as a leading light against Islamism certainly confuses matters and weakens the strength of Obama’s demand at the UN for the world to reject it completely.
Even so, the speech gave the clearest indicator that Obama has finally begun to awaken to the security threat that has re-emerged on his watch. “We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom,” Obama concluded, “and we are prepared to do what is necessary [emphasis mine] to secure that legacy for generations to come.”
That echoed an Obama statement made the day before after the beginning of the Syrian campaign. “We are going to do what is necessary,” Obama declared, “to take the fight to this terrorist group.” In his UN speech, Obama insisted that US forces would not be sent “to occupy foreign lands,” but gone were the categorical refusal to consider other options.
At least for a moment on the global stage, Obama clearly defined the mission and pledged to do what has to be done to meet it. He then articulated that position without apology, and challenged the world to act alongside the US to accomplish it. Necessity, it seems, is the mother of leadership.
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