The only thing worse than a commander-in-chief who sees the enemy around every corner is one who's unclear about whom or what he is fighting. As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks congressional authorization to continue bombing Islamic State targets, his equivocation about the struggle against an enemy he refuses to name is undermining the success of the mission.
This is not the first time Mr. Obama has equivocated. He couldn't decide which horses to back in the Arab Spring, and so bred distrust on all sides. A trio of foreign policy heavyweights – Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power – pushed him into intervening in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi. But a lack of follow-up on that United Nations-sanctioned NATO mission left a vacuum that the Islamic State is now filling.
Mr. Obama drew a red line in Syria and dared President Bashar al-Assad to cross it. He did. But after Mr. Obama asked Congress for authorization to bomb Mr. Assad's forces – authorization he insisted he did not need – he withdrew his request and did nothing. Since then, the number of deaths in Syria's civil war has tripled to at least 210,000, about half of them civilians.
Many security experts warned in 2013 that the chaos in Syria was creating fertile ground for a new offshoot of al-Qaeda whose barbaric tactics and force of attraction outdid those of previous terrorist groups. Mr. Obama dismissed such notions, likening the group that has since come to be known as the Islamic State to a "jayvee" (junior varsity) basketball team in Kobe Bryant jerseys.
That was barely a year ago. Now, Mr. Obama has gone back to Congress seeking an authorization to use military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State. This comes six months after he began a military campaign against IS, a campaign for which he insisted he did not need congressional approval since the AUMF approved after 9/11 has not expired.
Many in Congress fear the President will soon grow just as weary of this battle as he did of the Libyan campaign and the Arab Spring, leaving it to the next commander-in-chief to pick up the pieces. As a result, Mr. Obama seriously risks losing this vote.
Republican hawks warn that this AUMF, which would expire in three years, would tie not only Mr. Obama's hands but those of his successor by prohibiting "enduring offensive ground combat operations," or U.S. boots on the ground. Liberal Democrats warn the administration's unwillingness to define "enduring" or "offensive" could open the door to such a ground war.
Since a defeat in Congress would be a huge propaganda victory for the Islamic State, enough members in both parties may put aside their reservations and vote yes. (Though some also remain hesitant, since the 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq haunted many supporters.) But if Mr. Obama gets his AUMF, it won't be because he's convinced Congress that his heart is in this fight.
The President did not help his cause last week by hosting a White House summit euphemistically titled Countering Violent Extremism. Words matter. And Mr. Obama's refusal to utter the words "Islamic State," "radical Islam" or "Islamic terrorism" could be defended as an attempt to avoid fanning the flames of Islamophobia or stigmatizing an entire religion.
Such extreme political correctness can only inspire cynicism, however, when Mr. Obama's own deradicalization programs and surveillance operations are focused almost exclusively on Muslims. It also insults the intelligence of average Americans, who know well enough that the Islamic State propagates a perverted, medieval interpretation of Islam.
Still, the barbarism IS conducts is done in the name of religion, and to deny this is to undermine efforts to thwart it and dishonours the victims – French Jews, Egyptian Christians, Canadian soldiers or moderate Muslims – who are killed simply for who they are or what they believe.
Mr. Obama ended his summit sounding like George W. Bush, admonishing representatives of the 60 countries in attendance that democracy is the only antidote to extremism. That did not go over well with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries that remain the West's most critical allies in the military campaign against the Islamic State.
It also further muddied the objectives of a war Mr. Obama only seems half prepared to fight.