President Obama Gambles Delay on Islamic State Was Worth It

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By Gerald F. Seib,

from The Wall Street Journal,

Change in Iraq’s Government Became Price for Full Dose of American Military Help Against ISIS.

President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Wednesday night laying out a strategy for dealing with the threat from Islamic State extremists closed the book on one presidential gamble—but opened the door to a fresh one that’s only beginning.

The first gamble Mr. Obama took unfolded over the past three months, starting on the day in early June when Islamic State fighters captured the strategic Iraqi city of Mosul. With that victory, Islamic State established itself as a legitimate threat to an Iraqi government that the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars propping up.

Yet rather than move quickly with a big American response, Mr. Obama instead decided to delay, using the specter of the Islamic State threat to generate pressure on Iraqis to first ditch Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The White House had concluded that Mr. Maliki had become a divisive Shiite sectarian leader who stood in the way of overseeing a unified Iraqi government and military capable of working with the U.S. to really turn back Islamic State fighters.

A change in Iraq’s government, in short, became the price for a full dose of American military help. That change in Baghdad finally came this week, when Mr. Maliki officially departed and a new prime minister and government moved in. That has raised American hopes that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds might become more united in working with the U.S. to begin reclaiming ground that Islamic State forces have seized, and it led directly to Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation announcing a step-up in American military involvement.

The president calculated, in short, that there was little justification for unleashing American military might on behalf of an Iraqi leader and government that already had proved more than capable of squandering the help. And in the administration’s eyes, the wait was worthwhile because the delay forced Iraqis to begin putting their house in order to wage what figures to be a long-term fight that, ultimately, only they can win.

“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Mr. Obama said in his speech. “That’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”

Still, the wait was risky, and whether the political gains made justified the costs incurred won’t be possible to gauge for some time.

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