It is nearly too little, nearly too late, but there is still a way for the U.S. President to be the leader the world needs in the face of ISIS extremism.
BERLIN — In the first and second waves of attack on ISIS fighters along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it was American fighter jets, drones and bombers doing most of the work. Sure, U.S. diplomacy managed to get a contribution from several Arabic countries, and there was even a Saudi prince in one cockpit.
But it was President Barack Obama who gave the command to attack ISIS targets inside Syria, though it was more out of cluelessness and exasperation than any strategic plan for peace in the Middle East. His speech to the UN General Assembly did little to hide this troubling fact.
The United States waited too long, and Europe is waiting even longer, despite the fact that it is geographically closer to the war zone and the millions of refugees trying to flee the violence. The worst thing would be to let the murderers go on killing unhindered.
Obama is a hesitant commander-in-chief. Didn't he promise America retreat, peace, reconciliation? He met with little success at home. But now there is absolutely nobody in Washington who doesn't share the perception that the United States — whether the Americans want this or not — really is the "indispensable nation," which unlike Europe, cannot always claim exemption from tending to world order.
The lack of clarity about the situation, the underestimation of the hellish dynamic of what's going on, the risk of contagion from the fanaticism — all these things added up to fatal hesitation. But now Obama can no longer allow nothing to happen.
At the same time, in this war — and it is a war with prospects of more — he has to follow the diplomatic precedent of the elder President Bush during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, and do everything so that the action doesn't look like a war of the West against the Arabs, or a war to protect a beleaguered Israel. Obama's UN speech also underscored this.
What looks like a limited stabilizing action in the region once referred to as the Fertile Crescent is actually a vivid sign of the sorry state of world politics. But it does offer an opportunity. At the very least, it may succeed in getting Russian leadership to hold still. In conjunction with unrest in the Arab world and Iran's quest for power, Russia must anticipate revolts in the north Caucasus region that are just waiting to happen.
Can the U.S. Air Force, uninvited, continue to bomb inside Syrian territory? The UN has to figure that out. But one thing is sure: The old names only refer to lines in the drifting sand, and may very well be gone tomorrow. As for a new, liberated Middle East that seemed to be rising from the spirit of the Arab Spring, that is already long gone.