October 26, 2021

Analysis: Five Thoughts on President Obama’s ISIS Address

My take on the president’s remarks addressing the ISIS threat, a primetime do-over of his “no strategy” gaffe:

(1) President Obama is right to identify ISIS as a brutal and dangerous terrorist fighting force that threatens the region, the West, and the United States.  He is right to ramp up our efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this group.  They are evil, fanatical butchers who only understand force, and must be stopped.  Obama asserted that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state — but they absolutely act in the name of Islam (as do many terrorist groups), and their goal is to establish and expand an Islamist state, known as a caliphate.  They’ve been frighteningly successful to that end, seizing vast stretches of land and major cities in Syria and Iraq, and amassing more money and resources than any terrorist organization on earth:

Map: Areas of Iraq and Syria under ISIS control http://t.co/bILTzca6vn pic.twitter.com/Mwr12eYLkQ

— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 11, 2014

According to Obama, ISIS “has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way,” but that isn’t exactly accurate.  They have a vision, and they’ve been carrying it out with appalling brutality and efficiency.  This spreading “cancer,” to borrow the president’s term, did not pop up overnight.  It has been building and growing for years — a fact that the administration knew about and did virtually nothing to stop until Americans journalists were being beheaded on camera and the political winds shifted.  The president even laughed ISIS off as the equivalent of a “JV” basketball earlier this year.  Now the US military is engaged in what White House officials are warning will be a years-long campaign against that JV squad.  That disconnect and miscalculation is so embarrassing that administration officials are flailing to claim he didn’t say what he plainly said — and are convincing nobody.

(2) Obama advanced a four-pronged plan: Systematic airstrikes (including in Syria), increased support to anti-ISIS forces on the ground (explicitly ruling out any US combat troops), increased intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts to thwart ISIS’ encroachment into the West (he noted that thousands of Western nationals have joined the jihad), and continued humanitarian aid to the populations ravaged and displaced by the violence.  Few Americans object to items one, three, and four, (though many would disagree with Obama’s statement that he possesses the authority to execute an prolonged air campaign without Congress’ approval) but the second piece is much more complicated.  Arming and propping up the Kurds in northern Iraq seems sensible, but Obama also spoke of “ramping up” assistance to the Syrian opposition, and called on Congress to provide authority and resources to “train and equip” these forces.  Who are these people?  One of the legitimate concerns about arming the “moderate rebels” in the past is that it’s very difficult to vet the good from the bad, and the latter have repeatedly co-opted and overwhelmed the former, including in the very recent past. Obama himself ridiculed this entire concept as a “fantasy” on August 8th.  Of this year.  Now it’s his official policy?  How did this proposal transition from “total fantasy” to “let’s do it” in four weeks?

(3) The examples of prior “success” cited by Obama do not inspire confidence.  While it’s true that we’ve used drone strikes to take out top jihadi leaders in places like Yemen and Somalia, neither country is remotely stable.  In fact:

Obama cites Somalia/Yemen as models for CT strategy. Last spring, WH had both as “unusual & extraordinary” threats. http://t.co/sUhNARkj3k

— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) September 11, 2014

That jarring issue was noticed and criticized left, right and center last night.  It’s also mystifying that Obama touted his policy vis-a-vis Assad’s chemical weapons as a success.  It’s been an abysmal, humiliating failure.  The president drew a red line, Assad violated it repeatedly, and the White House equivocated badly.  Exactly one year ago, Obama was trying to build the case for bombing Assad.  Now we’re bombing Assad’s enemies, and the accidental Putin/Kerry disarmament plan lies in shambles.  Beyond the multiple missed deadlines, our government is accusing the Syrian regime of failing to declare and relinquish all of its illegal stockpiles as required (and as we predicted), with intelligence suggesting that Assad’s government was still gassing people as recently as this spring.  The administration’s Syria policy is incoherent.

(4) The speech went off the rails near the end.  The insertion of a far-flung mishmash of other international and domestic topics seemed forced, unfocused, and bizarre:

Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression. Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the grueling work required to bounce back – America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth. Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history. Despite all the divisions and discord within our democracy, I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day – and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future. Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America – our scientists, our doctors, our know-how – that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola.

Cameos from US auto manufacturers, job growth, Russia (another apparent “success”) and Ebola, all shoehorned into a speech about confronting ISIS.  Not his finest rhetorical effort.

(5) Left unsaid, for obvious reasons, is how it’s come to this.  Here we have President Obama, the anti-war, “smart power” candidate, re-escalating the conflict in Iraq and beyond because the situation on the ground is a giant, bloody mess.  He’s doing so as a last resort, having ignored and downplayed the growing threat for years.  The political narrative of terrorists on the run and the ‘tide of war receding’ was too important to be disrupted by unpleasant and malignant realities.  Here’s the blunt and damning assessment offered by the New York Times’ Baghdad bureau chief in an online ‘ask me anything’ forum:

In short, they were lying to themselves and/or the country about the implosion of Iraq to keep up political appearances.  And here we are today.  The most offensive fiction we hear from the president and his surrogates is that he desperately wanted to keep a residual force in Iraq to help secure the transition and beat back any incipient terrorist threat (which was his stated position for a time), but we were rebuffed by the Iraqis.  So we had no choice.  But one account after another has confirmed the fact that his White House approached status of forces agreement negotiations with a torpid, apathetic, negligent attitude.  The deal did not get done because it was the opposite of a priority for this president.  And now those decisions are coming back to haunt him.  The good news is that he began the speech by excitedly reminding the world that America is moving ahead with our withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan, where the Taliban lies in wait for our specifically-telegraphed departure.  What could go wrong?  On ISIS, we have a weak, hyper-political president very belatedly doing (mostly) the right thing, for (at least partially) the wrong reasons, while appearing to learn precious few lessons from previous blunders.  I’ll leave you with three clips.  The first is Obama’s “fantasy” answer of August 8th, the second is 2012 Obama rebutting 2014 Obama’s status of forces excuse, and the third is President Bush’s prophetic 2007 warning about the future of Iraq: