Paul R. Pillar is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, deputy chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and executive assistant to the director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Pillar received an A.B. summa cum laude from Dartmouth College, a B.Phil. from Oxford University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), and Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (2011). He blogs at nationalinterest.org.
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Obama had tried to convey a careful and reasonable assessment of ISISs significance, and of the downsides of possible further U.S. actions in the Middle East. But reasonableness lost out to a groundswell of public sentiment.
Leading from behind would in some respects be the most effective U.S. approach toward countering ISIS in the Middle East, given how success in any such effort will depend heavily on whether Arab publics and governments, including Sunni ones in particular, are seen to be out front in opposing the group.
U.S. involvement means taking sides in those civil wars, and that means making new enemies and eliciting more unfavorable reactions against U.S. interests.
From a U.S. point of view, the policy of not saying anything publicly has also long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had.
If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.
Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State.
On one side are calls for the United States to do more in response to untoward happenings in hot spots such as Iraq, Syria, or Ukraine. On the other side is a tempered restraint based on the limitations and complications of trying to do anything more in such places.
Different problems need to be considered together.
International agreements are more a matter of intentions and motivations than of capabilities.
The Obama administration's proposal to spend $500 million on training and equipping appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition leaves unanswered some of the same questions that always have surrounded proposals to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels.