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The Right Time for America to Lead From Behind

After 9/11, the United States relied on help from its friends. Now, it's time to repay the favor.


The Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East has been predicated on the belief that the Islamic State is a regional problem. Unlike al Qaeda’s attempts to attack the United States, the thinking seems to have gone that the Islamic State was limited in its ambition to establish a caliphate and limited in its ability to plan and carry out sophisticated attacks beyond the territory it controlled. But the apparent attack on Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 and Friday’s attacks in Paris show that both elements of that analysis are wrong: The Islamic State is now using the territory it controls as a training ground for operatives it sends to terrorize the West. The strategy of containment that President Barack Obama so recently touted as a success has proved itself insufficient to the task of subduing the Islamic State.

What should replace it? Strange as it may sound, Obama ought to embrace the approach he was roundly ridiculed for attempting in Libya (including by me): leading from behind. But he needs to do it right this time. Instead of being stingy with America’s help, he should give it lavishly and silently. Instead of crowing that allies can’t do much without us, he should stand behind French President François Hollande and look on admiringly. Instead of acquiescing to NATO invoking Article 5, which requires states to come to the aid of another member in the case of an attack, he should be offering it to France — as NATO did for the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Instead of waiting until allied leaders have consolidated their domestic political support, he should help them build it.

The unequalled practitioners of leading from behind are the British. While Britons complain their support has too little influence (and they’re right), every other country wishes it could have the influence with the United States that Britain does (and they’re right). Britain achieves that place of special influence by smart choice. After 9/11, it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, among all of America’s allies, appreciated that there was much that needed doing that the U.S. government was too overwhelmed to do itself. Instead of waiting to be asked, the British moved out and started doing things the Americans needed, whether or not it understood that the United States needed them: getting NATO to invoke Article 5, working the U.N. Security Council to condemn the attacks, collecting and sharing intelligence with the United States. The British were tireless when the Americans were weary, and Britain allowed America to rest, as it exerted itself on America’s behalf. This is what the United States should be doing for France now.

Obama needs, at long last, to devise a strategy for Syria. His national security team needs to thrash out a political end state that allies can coalesce around. That means finding common cause with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government; bringing around the Gulf states that have been fueling the fires of conflict; finding ways to divorce Iran and Russia from propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; working more constructively with Egypt; cultivating a political and military leadership in Syria the United States is willing to see in power; and finding a stable equilibrium for Kurdish independence aspirations without provoking the states in which they live. And all this needs to be done while giving France the lead and the credit.

Politicians are almost always tempted to hope they can achieve their goals with fewer means than it will actually take. Bill Clinton limited the Kosovo campaign to airstrikes; George W. Bush committed too few resources and adopted plans ill-suited to his ambitious political goals in Iraq and Afghanistan; Obama has set timelines for withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, been unwilling to enforce his red line in Syria, and insisted the United States will have no “boots on the ground” in Syria.

The political logic for doing so is clear: Presidents want to emphasize to their public that the ends are achievable and will not overwhelm other domestic priorities. Presidents would prefer to try a little and, only if it proves insufficient, to try a little more. This is exactly what Obama has been doing in Iraq and Syria, ordering a few hundred trainers here and a smattering of airstrikes and special operations troops there. But gradual escalation in warfare sends the wrong message to enemies — it telegraphs the limitations countries place on themselves, encouraging those enemies to keep fighting. And it is clearly not how Hollande wants to approach the fight.

Military force will be an essential element of that strategy, but it alone cannot defeat the Islamic State. In addition to destroying what parts of the jihadi group the United States is able, America also needs to delegitimize those that remain and deter other terrorists from attacks on its territory. It is not enough to, as Obama has, say that we can’t want success more than the people of the region do. That conflates willingness with ability and insults those working hard for a better Middle East.

As François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued in the Financial Times Saturday, how other countries respond to the attacks in Paris will determine whether the Islamic State succeeds. They will succeed if the world treats refugees fleeing from their terror in Iraq and Syria as terrorists. The threat of terrorists using the cover of refugees to infiltrate Western societies is real, as is the radicalization of Muslims already living in the West. But vetting and surveillance are better, more precise tools than closing borders against the agony of people who are overwhelmingly victims of the same threats the West is afraid of. Norway-based activist Iyad el-Baghdadi has made a compelling case on Twitter that compassion for those victims is a major element of how the West discredits the Islamic State’s appeal and positively shapes attitudes in the Middle East. Obama should not only be the West’s leading voice, but he should also adopt policies that others can emulate instead of treating Syrian refugees as a European problem.

Obama can shift some of the burden of this long, arduous war onto other capable shoulders only if he can learn to lead successfully from behind. It still requires leading.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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