President Obama, as he reminds us often, has run his last election. He has 28 months left in his Presidency, and is looking ahead at his legacy. His job approval numbers are the lowest of his Presidency, about 40%, as has been common for recent past Presidents in their sixth year in office. Does he care? Not really.
Democrats in Congress are not asking Obama to campaign for them as they seek reelection on November 4, given his relative unpopularity (still way above W's in his sixth year). But the recent emergence of ISIS (or ISIL, as the Administration stubbornly calls this group, referring to "the Levant", their name for the future Middle East "caliphate" they want to create) has given Obama the opportunity to use the Presidency to prop up his party's chances in the upcoming midterm election without directly campaigning for the candidates.
Here is how it would work: Obama has just gotten Congressional approval for a limited air strike capability against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to be reevaluated by December 11, 2014 (after the election), and this legislation also made it impossible for the GOP crazies in Congress to shut down the government before the election. During this nearly three-month period, Obama will seek to build a coalition of willing nations pledged to take down ISIS, in a way that will allow America to fight ISIS without putting "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria (except for Special Forces boots, and troops protecting Baghdad's Green Zone).
This Congressional approval was obtained over the opposition of a strange coalition of right wing Republicans (libertarians like Rand Paul who want no involvement there, and Bobbsey Twins John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who want to bomb ISIS into the Stone Age), and liberal Democrats (who recall all too painfully the treachery of George W. Bush and his cronies who lied the country into the invasion of Iraq in 2003).
President George H.W. Bush built a successful coalition before Operation Desert Storm, which drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the early 1990s, but Obama may have a more difficult time building a similar coalition to destroy ISIS.
President George H.W. Bush built a successful coalition before Operation Desert Storm, which drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the early 1990s, but Obama may have a more difficult time building a similar coalition to destroy ISIS, as there are no easy answers this time: the Iraqi government is still Shiite-dominated and corrupt, and Syria is such a mess that it is hard to game plan a successful outcome. Destroying ISIS would only strengthen Assad, and we would be seeking to involve more Sunnis in the new Iraqi government while propping up the Shiite Assad regime in Syria by taking down the Sunni ISIS there.
If by December 11, 2014 there is no "coalition of the willing" to fight ISIS, or if the Saudis and other allies are unwilling to put boots on the ground in Iraq, leaving it to the U.S. to do so again, Obama could shrug and say "Well, I tried". This would leave the Iraqis and Kurds to fight ISIS alone, as Baghdad is encircled and Shiite holy cities like Karbala and Najaf south of Baghdad are threatened by the Sunni ISIS extremists.
Who is then left to combat ISIS as it sweeps south in Iraq? The answer is: the Iranians. Iran is the largest Shiite country in the world, and many Iranians make pilgrimages each year to the Shiite holy cities in Iraq. The specter of ISIS blowing up the holy Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf would force Iran to intervene directly in this conflict to combat Sunni ISIS.
An offshoot of all this dynamic change would be an uneasy alliance between the U.S. and Iran, or at least a recognition that both countries have a common interest in preventing ISIS from establishing a Levantine caliphate on the doorsteps of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
I recently saw Rory Kennedy's excellent documentary "Last Days In Vietnam", about the chaotic fall of the South Vietnam regime to the North Vietnamese in April, 1975. Could we see a repeat of this debacle in Baghdad 40 years later? Plan ahead, Mr. President…