With the president and Congress on vacation, it was fortunate that the nation had the Pentagon press corps on hand when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Michael Dempsey gave a progress report Thursday on U.S. military action in Iraq. Their assessment: We face a very dangerous, long-term threat in the Middle East without a clear commitment for meeting it.
Reporters asked the right questions about the future course of our new engagement in the Middle East. They got informative answers about the threat to national security posed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and about the military strategy necessary to defeat it.
But Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey were unable to predict whether this strategy would be executed. They could only repeat what President Obama has already said about the current mission of U.S. forces: to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq, assist humanitarian actions and, in Mr. Hagel's words, "support Iraq's efforts to combat ISIL."
The defense secretary did say, "We continue to explore all options regarding ISIL and how we can best support our partners."
President Obama has said part of the U.S. mission is to "contain" the Islamic State.
But Gen. Dempsey cautioned that the Islamic State cannot be contained "in perpetuity," and Mr. Hagel said it can be expected to regroup and stage new offensives. They both described it as a very dangerous threat to the region, Europe and the United States, beyond anything encountered so far, including al-Qaida. And Gen. Dempsey said it "will eventually have to be defeated."
That cannot be done, he said, "without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria. That will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time."
Secretary Hagel added that the Islamic State "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and get ready."
These statements make it clear that the United States does not yet have a national strategy for defeating the Islamic State, and that current military actions, which include 60 reconnaissance flights a day and, as of Thursday, 89 targeted air strikes, are no more than a stop-gap measure while we wait for a "coalition" to form.
That depends on a very iffy change of heart by the Shia Dawa party that rules Iraq to the exclusion of Sunni and Kurdish interests, and that in turn depends on the policy of Iran, which has announced that it opposes U.S. intervention in Iraq.
But air raids on Syria were ruled out a year ago by President Obama. It is hard to foresee when the circumstances, including local ground forces to exploit the air raids, might materialize to alter that decision.
Some analysts have suggested that we may have to form an alliance with Syria's government, a step this administration would find very difficult to consider, much less accomplish.
Perhaps that is why both Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey repeatedly said that the struggle against ISIS and other forms of Islamic terrorism is going to be "very long."
Despite the American public's deep desire for peace, or at least disengagement, it appears that for the United States, the Middle East offers no easy way out.