On a humid mid-September night, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at the royal palace on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast to beg the favor of a King. The opulent compound where Abdullah bin Abdulaziz spends his summers is guarded by machine guns and armored vehicles and hung with sumptuous curtains, giant blue-tinted chandeliers and large portraits of perhaps the most powerful man in the Middle East, his excellency the King himself.
Which is why Kerry was there: Abdullah was the linchpin of Kerry’s plan to build what President Obama called a “broad coalition of partners”–more than 40 nations so far, from Albania to South Korea–to fight the fanatical terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But the King had some demands of his own in return for agreeing to host a training camp for moderate Syrian rebels who can help fight ISIS and for pressuring his kingdom’s influential Sunni clerics to denounce the radical terrorist group’s ideology.
The Saudis consider ISIS a threat, but less of one than their longtime mortal enemy: Iran. Abdullah insists that the U.S. not turn its battle with ISIS into a tango with Tehran. The King specifically told Kerry he would boycott a Sept. 15 conference on ISIS and Iraq if Iran were invited. He also wants more done to topple the Syrian dictator and Iranian ally Bashar Assad, an objective far beyond the bounds of Obama’s ISIS plan.
So it went throughout Kerry’s travels to six countries in as many days. The headlines that trailed him told of support and cooperation. But a closer reading showed each pledge had come with fine print and every alliance had its limits. Close friends like Britain and Germany signed up, but not for military action. Turkey downplayed its role, while Egypt steered the topic to local concerns. Meanwhile, two geopolitical giants on the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, are not on board. And Iran, the country with perhaps the biggest hand in the fate of Iraq and Syria, warns of nefarious American intentions even as Iraqi militias under its control fight alongside the U.S.
But Kerry remained relentlessly upbeat. On a Sept. 10 visit to Baghdad, where his motorcade weaved through the armed checkpoints of the Green Zone, he cast the fight against ISIS as principled and inspiring–an ice-bucket challenge on a global scale. “Nearly every country on earth could have an ability and an interest to join in this effort,” Kerry declared. “This is a moment for international cooperation to prove its value.”
Or its fragility. One setback or misstep could turn cooperation into discord. Many nations see greater threats than ISIS in the Middle East, and the U.S. is not the unrivaled power it was when George H.W. Bush assembled dozens of nations for the 1991 Gulf War. This new coalition appears much less willing and less united–and more apt to strain under the pressure of events in the blood-soaked sands of northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The trouble was clear a few days later, in Paris, after nearly a week of travel on his Air Force 757 and nonstop meetings with foreign dignitaries had begun to take their toll on Kerry. The Secretary of State was sitting in a gilded dining room in the U.S. ambassador’s residence, a mansion lifted from the pages of Vogue. Golden sunlight streamed onto his navy blue suit, but Kerry was not in a mood to enjoy it. That day’s newspapers had carried reports saying Arab nations had offered to conduct air strikes against ISIS–a seemingly welcome development for his coalition. But Kerry called the reports premature. He also complained about the media’s focus on dropping bombs. “It’s a critical component, but it’s only one component,” Kerry said, calling efforts to stabilize Iraq and to combat ISIS’s extremist message “far more important than the military in the end.”
As envisioned by Kerry, the grand coalition will do more than confront ISIS on the battlefield. It will cut off funding for the group from wealthy Arabs in nations like Kuwait and Qatar. It will choke ISIS’s lucrative oil smuggling and stanch the flow of foreign fighters into the group’s ranks. It will also rally Muslim clerics to condemn ISIS’s claim that its self-described caliphate represents a pure version of Islam.
But even basic nonmilitary help from U.S. allies comes with strings attached. In Egypt, Kerry paid a call on the country’s authoritarian leader, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, at the presidential palace in Cairo, a former luxury hotel converted to a fortified compound. “You are welcome here anytime,” al-Sisi told Kerry with a wide smile before a meeting in which Kerry asked merely that he call upon Cairo’s influential institutions of Islamic learning to denounce ISIS. When Kerry appeared with Egypt’s Foreign Minister later in the day, the Egyptian seemed to set a price: increased U.S. assistance against Islamic radicals within Egypt and in neighboring Libya. And Kerry was forced to respond gingerly when asked about local human-rights abuses, a longtime U.S. concern in the repressive country, saying Egypt would take steps “on an appropriate schedule that is controlled by Egyptians, not by me.”
In some cases, there just weren’t enough strings to pull key countries to action. Take Turkey. Foreign fighters headed for the Syrian battlefield are flowing across Turkey’s southern border, while black-market oil shipments worth millions per week to ISIS stream north. During a daylong visit to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara, just a few miles from a neighborhood notorious for ISIS recruitment, Kerry asked the government to better seal its border. Turkish officials have taken some action on that score, but not enough for Washington’s liking. They have also refused to allow air strikes from a U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik. Turkey is understandably reluctant to provoke ISIS, which is holding 49 Turkish citizens hostage and has not threatened Turkey’s Sunni government.
Even Europe’s role in the effort remains ill defined despite growing fears that ISIS could launch terrorist attacks there. Antiwar sentiment has been high in Britain since the Iraq War, and even the ISIS beheading of a British citizen wasn’t enough to make Prime Minister David Cameron commit to strikes. France’s Foreign Minister says the country will conduct strikes over Iraq but maybe not Syria. And if the 2011 NATO air campaign over Libya is any example, expect endless squabbling among European allies over how to proceed.
Obama’s coalition also has powerful opponents. While China remains mum, Russian officials want U.N. authorization for any air strikes in Syria–which they are likely to block at the U.N. Security Council. A senior State Department official calls Russia’s stated concern for international law “completely ludicrous” given Moscow’s recent actions in Ukraine. But when pressed on the legal basis for potential air strikes within Syria, the official called the question premature.
And then there is Iran, torn between its twin hatreds for ISIS and the U.S. The Shi’ite government in Tehran already sends military advisers and equipment to Baghdad and is directing Shi’ite Iraqi militias on the ground against ISIS. That de facto cooperation with the U.S. will prove increasingly hard to manage as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, continues to condemn the U.S. But comity has its price too. In late August, American air strikes coincided with an offensive by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias to break an ISIS siege of the Iraqi town of Amerli. Any sign of real synergy between Washington and Tehran could put a swift end to cooperation from Abdullah and his Sunni Arab neighbors.
A Long War
To be sure, Kerry returned to Washington with some firm commitments. Fourteen countries have agreed to send weapons to the effort, and 29 have offered humanitarian aid. Just seven will provide military personnel. No one doubts who will handle the bulk of the work. “When we’ve got a big problem in the world, it falls on our shoulders,” Obama said on Sept. 14. “There just aren’t a lot of other folks who can perform in the same way.”
But the costs–and consequences–of American leadership remain unclear. As Kerry approached Washington on his return flight, televisions inside the plane displayed footage of General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling Congress that American troops may be needed on the battlefield, a seeming contradiction of Obama’s “no boots on the ground” vow. Domestic resistance aside, American mission creep could fracture the fragile international coalition. Ultimately, the biggest challenge to the alliance may be uncertainty about where America is leading it.
This appears in the September 29, 2014 issue of TIME.