by Bob Wheeler


    In the aftermath of two beheadings of American journalists by the radical group that styles itself “the Islamic State,” there is a growing clamor for President Obama to take action. The president’s Republican critics maintain that he did not act resolutely enough to end the civil war in Syria and that he withdrew too quickly from Iraq. Now even some of his fellow Democrats are starting to complain that he lacks vision and resolve.

    Personally I believe that a president needs to be cautious in such situations. Whether or not to go to war is literally a life or death matter. War inevitably entails the loss of human life, as well as the massive destruction of property. Moreover the outcome of a war is by no means certain. Once the fateful decision has been made to commit troops to combat the outcome is determined by unpredictable events on the battlefield; and it is by no means certain that the “good guys” will win. In war might makes right.

    No president should embark on a military adventure unless he has an objective that is both clearly defined and attainable. In the Middle East we have neither. The United States, strictly speaking, has no interests in the region aside from access to oil at fair market prices. In terms of higher humanitarian goals it is unlikely that American-style democracy will ever take hold there. A bad regime is often replaced by an even worse one. In the meantime our meddling in the region has only garnered us a reservoir of ill-will.

    That being said, there is no doubt that the so-called “Islamic State” poses a very real threat to the western world, and we must be prepared to act when the time is right. The trick is to make sure we have a clear pretext to do so. If we act preemptively we make ourselves the aggressors and give our enemies a pretext to attack us. What we need to do is to stop our bombing campaign in Iraq, and declare publicly that the United States has no quarrel with Islam, and no interest in interfering in a sectarian conflict between opposing factions of Islam. But then we need to make clear, in coordination with our NATO allies, that a terrorist attack sponsored by the “Islamic State” against any NATO member will be considered an act of war and that we will respond accordingly. Then, should such an attack actually materialize the president should ask Congress for a declaration of war. And once war is declared our objective should be the complete defeat of the Islamic State. That, of course, will require “boot on the ground.”

    Assuming that the war is brought to a successful conclusion a political solution will then have to be found. If the various factions comprising the Islamic world still cannot cooperate with each other we may have to carve out a new Sunni Arab state in the parts of Syria and Iraq that we will have occupied..

    It is ironic that the current crisis is happening on the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. By the middle of August most of Europe was at war, and by the time it was all over four years later 10 million men had died in combat and four empires had disappeared. Was it worth it? Just over twenty years later Europe, indeed the whole world, was engulfed in an even greater war, indeed, the worst war in human history.

    Yes, the president needs to weigh his options carefully. And let those who are urging a rush to war think about the possible consequences.