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For Obama, war against Islamic State is a tough sell

French President François Hollande visits the White House Tuesday to instill greater urgency in international efforts against the Islamic State.

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    President Obama vowed Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that the US and its international partners "will not relent" in the fight against the Islamic State.
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French President François Hollande visits the White House Tuesday in an unusual position: a European leader out to persuade a war-resistant American president to step up efforts to destroy the Islamic State.

President Obama is expected to be a tough sell.

Not only has he dedicated much of his presidency to trying to extract the United States from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he has also sought to get America off a war footing by resisting a plunge into the Syrian civil war.

“As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war,” Mr. Obama said as he reversed himself last month and announced he would leave more than 5,000 US troops in Afghanistan at the end of his presidency.

Since the Paris attacks, Mr. Hollande has declared war on the Islamic State (IS). By contrast, Obama has spent a good part of his public time explaining why he believes a Western-led war on IS – much less an American-led one – would play into the terrorists’ extremist narrative and enhance their global recruiting campaign.

“The question will be, does this president buy into Hollande’s argument that we are at war?” says Dov Zakheim, a longtime Pentagon official who is now vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“To do that would mean reversing himself on one of the central tenets of his presidency, and that’s a real challenge for him,” Dr. Zakheim says. “But if he doesn’t buy into it,” he adds, “that is going to limit what the US is willing to do” in the international campaign against IS.

Mr. Hollande is aiming to accomplish two other goals with his visits to Washington and then to Moscow, French officials say. One is to underscore to Obama that the Paris attacks signal a shift in IS strategy that gives new weight to attacks on Western interests and Western soil. The other is to bring the US and Russian efforts in Syria and against IS closer together to enable a true international “war” to defeat IS.

“What we’re saying is that with Paris and [intelligence pointing to imminent threats elsewhere in Europe], this is now an emergency [requiring] a sense of urgency,” says one French official. “What we are messaging to the Americans is that this crisis is destabilizing Europe.”

Hollande’s brief visit to Washington is one of several meetings between top leaders after what many referred to as the “wake-up call” of the Paris attacks as well as last Friday’s deadly siege of an international hotel in Bamako, Mali.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was in Paris Monday to confer on next steps against IS, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran, Iran, discussing the Syrian conflict and the Sunni Muslim terrorism of IS and Al Qaeda with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After his stop in Washington, Hollande will meet with Mr. Putin in Moscow.

The irony of a European leader pressing his US counterpart to engage in war is all the more intense after the events of 2003, in which the French did their diplomatic best to thwart a different American president’s efforts to win international backing for the Iraq War.

But the Paris attacks resulted in the deadliest day in France since World War II, so for some experts there is little surprise in seeing what amounts to an unusual push to persuade the US to intensify its military effort.

It has been surreal for some in Washington to see the French ambassador to the US received as a hero on Capitol Hill by some of the same members of Congress who vilified the French a decade ago. Some Republican leaders who disdain what they see as Obama’s naive approach to the Islamist extremist threat have declared France the leader, in America’s absence, of the war to destroy IS.

But the French recognize that they wholeheartedly joined the US-assembled coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS only recently: Until the Paris attacks, they were only carrying out airstrikes in Iraq. They say they are not seeking a leadership role for France on the order of the nearly 3-year-old French-led counterterrorist campaign in Mali.

"What we are trying to do [through our diplomacy] is increase the collective force against the Islamic State,” says the French official, who requested anonymity to discuss US-French diplomacy more openly.

Too little of Russia’s military effort in Syria is aimed at IS forces and assets, they say, while they see the Americans’ strict rules of engagement in Syria resulting in 75 percent of US sorties over Syria ending without any strikes.

Zakheim of The National Interest says the US could demonstrate a determination to defeat IS sooner rather than later by accelerating its airstrikes. He notes that the US carried out about 35 sorties a day in the Libya air campaign, and says ramping up to that level against IS “would make a difference.”

In the US, much of the debate over the effort to defeat IS has revolved around the question of the ground forces that most experts agree will be necessary if IS is to be defeated and not just weakened.

French officials say they do not envision any “Western forces” putting boots on the ground – but that leaves unanswered the question of who might play that role. Some Iranian forces are already in Syria, but coordinating with them would seem to be out of the question for the US, Turkey, and Arab powers.

Jordan is a likely candidate, some Western officials say, and the Saudis and Turks might also be called on, others say, except that the two countries are hardly on good terms and would be suspicious of the other’s involvement.

French officials say Hollande is well aware of the complexities involved in ramping up the international effort to destroy IS, but they say he will press to convince Obama that the Paris attacks make a measured approach to defeating IS obsolete.

"The core interests of the Europeans, your best allies, are at stake,” Hollande will tell Obama, the unnamed French official says. “We cannot wait."

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