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Islamic State 101: Why are Arab countries so reluctant to help?

Secretary of State John Kerry just ended a whirlwind tour of the Middle East to raise support for US-led military action against the Islamic State. The response was less than enthusiastic.

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Secretary of State John Kerry boards his plane at Cairo International Airport Saturday as he leaves the Egyptian capital. Secretary Kerry described Egypt as an 'important partner' during a short stop in Cairo to build support against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Brendan Smialowski/AP

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The past few days have offered compelling evidence for why President Obama has been so loath to militarily insert America into the fight against the brutal Islamic State.

The past few days, however, have also offered compelling evidence for why critics of Mr. Obama have been so frustrated by the cautious steps of a president they say "leads from behind."

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Welcome to the Middle East.

Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East this week to drum up support for military action against the Islamic State, which he outlined in a prime time speech Wednesday. The response has been met with only slightly more than a shrug.

This is not necessarily because all the Sunni-led countries of the Middle East are ambivalent about the group that claims to have created a Muslim caliphate across wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, and which beheaded a British aid worker this weekend. But intersecting allegiances and strategic aims mean some Arab countries feel they must tread cautiously.

As a neighbor of both Syria and Iraq, for instance, Turkey would seem to have the greatest interest in stemming the influence of the Islamic State. But doing so might empower the Iraqi Kurds, who are one important line of defense against the Islamic State – and Kurds in Iraq and Turkey are angling for an independent state. Empowering the Kurds could endanger Turkish national unity, the thinking goes.

Meanwhile, in other Arab capitals, similar concerns weigh against strong support for the US: Defeating the Islamic State could give Iran more scope to exert its authority. The Islamic State emerged in part because Sunni Muslim populations in Syria and Iraq chafed under the leadership of non-Sunni governments backed by Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power. Sunni governments in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for instance, oppose Iran.

And then there’s the deep distrust for the United States in the region.

When the country most eager to help you is the one you have sworn to overthrow, that is not a good sign. Anne Barnard and David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times write:

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While Arab nations allied with the United States vowed on Thursday to “do their share” to fight ISIS and issued a joint communiqué supporting a broad strategy, the underlying tone was one of reluctance. The government perhaps most eager to join a coalition against ISIS was that of Syria, which Mr. Obama had already ruled out as a partner for what he described as terrorizing its citizens.

Secretary Kerry is now in Paris for a Monday summit to marshal support against the Islamic State.

The past week will have only confirmed Obama’s concerns about again becoming militarily involved in the Middle East. If America’s supposed allies in the region are conflicted about what they want to happen, how is America supposed to make any significant difference?

But the past week will have also only confirmed the resolve of those who say the president’s foreign policy lacks decisiveness. Polls show that Americans back military action against the Islamic State, and Thursday’s events to remember 9/11 only drove home the connection between terrorism in the Middle East and US national security.

If the United States doesn’t act, who will?

The Obama administration is making the case that this will be a different kind of military campaign.

"I don't know whether you want to call it a war or a sustained counterterrorism campaign or – I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained," National Security Adviser Susan Rice told CNN.

In many ways, it is an attempt to find some practical middle ground between two legitimate sets of concerns: Obama's own and those of his critics.