In August 1990, Saddam Hussein led what was then the fourth largest army in the world, a battle-hardened group that had just fought the ten-year Iran-Iraq War, into Kuwait to seize its oil fields.
It was a clear violation of international law and national sovereignty, but as usual, Saddam had his own list of rationalizations — northern Kuwait really belonged to Iraq — plus the law that might makes right.
So what did we do? America’s interests were clearly at stake — we were much more dependent on foreign oil — but we were obviously not going to fight the whole of Saddam’s army at such a distance. Instead, President George Bush, in what was probably the brilliant diplomatic effort of the century, spent a half year assembling a coalition of 36 nations from five continents lined up against Saddam. The entire Middle East signed on — they feared Saddam’s incursions were only beginning — but countries from Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia signed on as well.
In the end, it was the world against Saddam. The shooting war finally broke out in January 1991, the final ground phase in late February lasting only 100 hours. The U.S. suffered 186 casualties and Saddam’s army was completely routed. President Bush’s approval ratings rose to 92 percent, the highest ever recorded.
The U.S. faces an almost identical situation now with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS is a rogue government that has very little local support even among the areas it is occupying. It relies on terror and conquest. Even in areas where it was originally welcomed, its harsh regimen and inhuman tactics have cost it the support of the population. Surrounding it are national governments that live in fear of its incursions. Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and the Kurdish Regional Authority all see ISIS as an alien intruder that must be contained. Moreover, the threat of terrorism carries far outside the region. With a secure, Al-Qaeda-like “base,” ISIS is in obvious position to threaten any country in Europe or North America with random acts of terror.
So why hasn’t President Obama duplicated George Bush’s effort and, working through the United Nations, assembled a coalition of forces that could put the stranglehold on IS? It might take many months but an alliance of nations could line up on ISIS’s perimeter and advance in a coordinated effort from all sides. American air power would obviously play a crucial role but a huge commitment of U.S. ground forces would not necessarily be needed. Much more important would be providing these national armies with sufficient weaponry. Faced with a coordinated attack on all fronts, it is doubtful ISIS could hold out for six weeks.
What has prevented President Obama from acting? There seem to be two things. First, he would be unable to “lead from behind” but would have to get out front in directing this global effort. Unfortunately, the President is surrounded by scholars and advisers who spend their time lamenting that America no longer has the power and prestige it once had in the world. Therefore these things are no longer possible. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less we try to do in the world, the more helpless we become.
Probably equally important, assembling a coalition to oppose an enemy halfway around the world is not the kind of thing the President wants to engage in right now. He frankly sees the Middle East mess as a distraction — probably as something that never would have happened if George Bush, Jr. had not invaded Iraq — and has been hoping the whole thing will go away. He would much rather spend his last two years pursuing his domestic policies of redistributing wealth in this country, and implementing the “green agenda” for the American economy than in dealing with foreign adversaries. (We still haven’t heard Secretary of State John Kerry say that ISIS represents a greater threat to the world community than global warming.)
ISIS represents a threat to Western civilization of a kind not seen since the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century. Then Europe found itself prostrated before a warrior nation of armed horsemen intent on destroying everything in their path and who treated their conquests with unbelievable cruelty. The Ottoman Empire continued this tradition for centuries afterward, beating on the gates of Vienna several times before finally being turned away by a united Europe in the later 17th century.
The ISIS threat is not going to go away. It is driven by a faith in conquest and violence plus the conviction that Moslems are destined to rule the world. If we do not strangle it in its cradle now, the problem will only continue to grow to world proportions.