Obama is right to target IS in Syria, but...
I'M PROBABLY one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for United States President Barack Obama's foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.
His "red line" about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a pencilled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State group and President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.
Dismissing the Islamic State as a "JV team", as Mr Obama did in January, was silly - compounded by the White House's contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. "JV" is short for "junior varsity" and suggests a team is not the best in the field.
Mr Obama's ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government's policy impossible to defend.
The tragedy in Syria isn't Mr Obama's fault, but that of Syrians; still, the President has been painfully passive towards what has unfolded: the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the destabilisation of neighbouring countries by 3 million refugees, the near collapse of Iraq, the beheading of two US journalists, mass atrocities against Yazidi and Christian religious minorities, and growing risks of Islamic State terrorism against US and European targets.
And, yes, that's the judgment of an Obama fan.
So it's just as well that the President is trying for a reset - oops, wrong word - let's just say "a new strategy" in Syria.
"America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat," Mr Obama declared in his speech on Wednesday night. He described it as a "counter-terrorism campaign" that would "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State.
There's some inconsistency there. Counter-terrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it's unlikely to destroy the Islamic State any more than it did the Taleban or militancy in Yemen.
Indeed, the President, in his speech, said that his strategy in Syria "is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years". That's a plausible comparison, but Mr Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.
Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse. Dick Cheney has compiled an almost perfect record of being wrong on foreign affairs, so, on Wednesday, when he called for the US to be more aggressive and get "back on offence", we should all insist on caution.
My take is that Mr Obama is right to expand military action against the Islamic State into Syria if it's done prudently, with the modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. The Islamic State is a proper target, having butchered Americans, dismembered Iraq and attempted genocide against minorities like the Yazidis.
The Islamic State could also pose a terror threat within the US. At least 100 - and, perhaps, many more - Americans have travelled to Syria to join jihadi groups, and some could return to carry out attacks.
So striking the Islamic State in Syria makes sense, but we also have to recognise that air strikes will be of limited benefit and carry real risks as well.
"We're going to war because we've been spooked," noted Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at University of Oklahoma. "But if we do it wrong, we could ensure that the violence spreads."
One danger is that if our bombs kill innocents, the Islamic State would use its video-making and social-media skills to galvanise the Sunni Muslim world, saying the American "infidels" who are slaughtering Sunni children must be punished. That's why it's crucial to have Sunni partners, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of air strikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are much fewer of them now than there were two years ago. The middle has been vanishing.
Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official said that the White House will try to expand support. But there's a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of the Islamic State, but to the creation of another Somalia.
So let's move ahead with eyes wide open. We've seen the perils of Mr Obama's inaction, and let's now avoid the perils of excessive action.