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konrad yakabuski

Only hours before the "act of war" that changed Paris forever, U.S. President Barack Obama was vaunting the progress of his year-long military mission against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

"I don't think they're gaining strength," Mr. Obama said of the self-proclaimed caliphate. "From the start, our first goal has been to contain, and we have contained them."

Even before Paris, the assertion appeared demonstrably false. While the U.S.-led bombing campaign had forced IS militants to retreat from some largely empty parts of Iraq and Syria, attempts to take back strategic strongholds such as Mosul in Iraq had failed miserably. Islamic State outposts were clearly "gaining strength" in Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Egypt – as the bombs that killed 43 in Beirut this month, and took down a Russian plane over Sinai last month, showed.

Then came Paris.

"ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding," Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said last week, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "They are on the march and it's important to recognize this and prepare to deal with it with action."

Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama's former secretary of state and now the leading Democratic contender to succeed him in the White House, reiterated her call for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, saying: "It is time to begin a new phase … to smash the would-be caliphate."

Almost everyone seemed to agree that Paris changed everything. Everyone, that is, except Mr. Obama. Despite a barrage of criticism and cries for an immediate reconsideration of an anti-IS strategy that had yielded disappointing results, the President was steadfast.

"We have the right strategy and we're going to see it through," he insisted. "What I do not do is take actions because it is going to work politically or [because] it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough."

Of course, there are signs of twisting on Mr. Obama's part. There was the huddle with Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Turkey, signalling his willingness to set aside the Russian President's support for Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad in exchange for help combatting Islamic State forces – this, only weeks after the U.S. President vowed that there would be no co-operation with Mr. Putin.

Then there is the planned Tuesday meeting at the White House with French President François Hollande, who will go to Moscow two days later to talk to Mr. Putin. The outlines of a more closely co-ordinated military campaign against IS militants and a brokered ceasefire in the Syrian civil war are taking shape, but the momentum is coming from Mr. Hollande. So is the pressure on Turkey and the West's Arab allies to stop shirking their responsibility in this fight.

The hard truth is that Mr. Obama does not want conflict in the Middle East to define what is left of his presidency. Nor does he see the Islamic State – which he calls "simply a network of killers" rather than the "army" Mr. Hollande describes – as a fundamental threat to U.S. security.

Sending Western ground troops back into Iraq is rightly out of the question, even if the idea of training local armies to take on Islamic State forces is not working – except in the case of the Kurdish peshmerga, whose territorial influence is limited. Even Mr. Obama's defence secretary conceded that Shia-led Iraqi forces who failed to retake Mosul lacked "the will to fight."

The drone-war President prefers a surgical approach to counterterrorism, one that involves the least risk. Taking out key IS operatives provides propaganda victories that undermine the terrorist group's recruiting efforts and may eventually decimate its chain of command. But Mr. Obama's refusal to recognize the Islamic State for what many experts say it has become – a functioning state that collects taxes and delivers services – reveals the limits of his strategy.

The problem is, no one, especially not the blustering Republicans, seems to have a better one.

"When I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation, what I'd like to see people ask is specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it?" Mr. Obama said last month. "Typically what you get is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo."

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