Obama's Unenviable Challenge: Selling an ISIS Strategy to an Insecure Nation

Obama's Unenviable Challenge: Selling an ISIS Strategy to an Insecure Nation

President Obama must convince Americans he knows what he's doing.

Published September 10, 2014

There's little question about the task ahead, and President Obama will make it clear in his address to the nation Wednesday night that he aims to "degrade and destroy" the Islamist militant group known as ISIS or ISIL. Whether he can convince the American public that he has a sure plan to accomplish that objective is less clear.

"The president needs to [make the case] that there's an imminent danger to the U.S. and people on U.S. soil and then lay out a strategy to an audience that is concerned about ISIS but at the same time feeling war weary. That's going to be really hard," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) told BET.com. "He also has the challenge of making it clear that whatever he does, he'll be working with a coalition of other countries that are contributing significantly to those efforts."

In addition, Cummings said, Obama will need to define what victory looks like and offer an exit strategy.

"It's a tall and very difficult order," the Maryland lawmaker said. A lonely one, too, he suggested. "Many members of Congress, while running around saying he should do something, don't want to take a vote [on military action]. They don't want to be a part of it and have that on their heads."

Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota progressive, who is proud of his anti-war convictions and whose 19-year-old son is active-duty Army, strongly believes that Congress should most definitely have a say in how the U.S. deals with ISIS.

"That may or may not be difficult" for some members, he told BET.com, "but that's our job."

Ellison, who is one of two Muslims serving in Congress, warns against taking a "testosterone-fueled" approach to ISIS. He wants the president to present a coalition-based solution that also takes into consideration political factors that are key bringing stability to the region.

"We need to make sure that Iraq is governing itself, or at least trying to and making substantial progress, in an exclusive way. ISIS basically has been able to get power by exploiting the grievances of the Sunnis who've been historically excluded," he said.

The president also will have to work with regional partners like Turkey, which is being used as an access point for militants to enter Syria and Iraq. Some countries may be purchasing oil from ISIS, a market that must be shut off.

"A lot of the conversation has been driven by strikes or no strikes, but that is not the most important part of how to bring peace and stability," Ellison argues.

Still, he adds, he would be willing to vote for some sort of military action if it were clear to him that the "diplomatic spade work" has been done.

Ellison reckons that ISIS would love the U.S to come in guns blazing and create collateral damage that militants can then use to fundraise and recruit.

"That's why they would behead two journalists, put it on video and brag about it and make threats. They're trying to pull us into something," he said. "We should be wary of that."

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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(Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Getty Images)

Written by Joyce Jones

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