Obama’s legacy of war

President Barack Obama, who came to office promising to end his predecessor George W Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this week ensured that he too will leave his successor a legacy of war. In his televised address from the State Room of the White House on Wednesday evening, Mr Obama stressed that his planned military campaign against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria would be nothing like those earlier wars. There would, he promised, be no large-scale deployment of United States forces on the ground as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, as in Yemen and Somalia, US action would be confined to air strikes and small-scale covert action on the ground by special forces. The US would, he said, be joined by a broad coalition of partners, including a number of Arab states – although Iraqis and Kurds were the only allies he identified by name.

Mr Obama is a reluctant warrior and Wednesday’s speech was one he would clearly have preferred not to have made. Since the beheading of two American journalists by militants from the self-styled Islamic State, also known as Isis, US public opinion has moved dramatically behind military action. Two weeks ago, the president admitted he still did not yet have a strategy for dealing with Isis in Syria, although the US has already launched more than 150 air strikes against the group in Iraq.

Since then, the White House has come under pressure to act, not only from Republican hawks like Senator John McCain but even from liberal Democrats such as Minnesota's Al Franken. Mr Obama announced on Wednesday that he will not hesitate to take action against Isis in Syria as well as Iraq and he called on Congress to authorise more resources to train and equip "moderate" Syrian rebels who are fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Last month, Mr Obama dismissed as “a fantasy” the idea that arming the moderate, non-Islamist Syrian opposition “made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” would have tipped the balance against Assad. Most of the rival Syrian opposition groups to Isis are themselves jihadis, as the more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) all but collapsed last year. Some reports from Syria suggest that the FSA may now be in the process of being revived under US guidance. The president avoided setting a date for the start of any military action inside Syria, however, and emphasised the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.


Military action by the US and its allies offers only part of the answer to the murderous militants of Isis, who have exploited Sunni grievances in both Iraq and Syria. The new government in Baghdad must prove that it is truly inclusive and a political settlement must be found in Syria if Mr Obama’s latest initiative is not to become America’s next, fruitless military adventure in the Middle East.