Obama goes to war against the Islamic State, sort of

Obama prepares for war / Photo: The White House, used under United States Government Works license
Obama prepares for war / Photo: The White House, used under United States Government Works license

WASHINGTON, September 10, 2014 — President Obama addressed the nation tonight to lay out his strategy to fight ISIL, the Islamic State.

In his brief message — under ten minutes — Obama laid out a four-point plan to “systematically degrade” and “destroy” ISIL (ISIS). Most of the news about the plan is old news: This won’t be a repeat of Iraq; there will be no American boots on the ground; we will do this in cooperation with other nations, but only America can lead the world.

Obama laid out past successes of his administration against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He said that we have managed to hit terrorists hard while bringing home 140,000 troops from Iraq and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, in the process making America a safer place.

Turning his attention to ISIS, Obama said, “Let’s make one thing clear: ISIL is not Islamic.” No religion condones killing innocents, he said, adding that ISIL is also not a state and has been recognized by no one as a state.

Our strategy will be a comprehensive antiterrorism campaign combining military, political and economic elements. Arab governments in the region will have to join the effort. We will train and arm Syrian rebels — Congress willing — with the extra benefit of putting pressure on President Assad. We will help Iraq to reconstitute and train its forces to fight ISIS; Obama has already sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Baghdad to consult with the new government in Iraq.

Obama’s four-point plan includes these elements:

  1. A systematic campaign of airstrikes. Working with the Iraqi government, we will go after terrorists wherever they are. “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
  2. We will assist Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS. We will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq, but they will not have a combat role. “We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.” We will ramp up assistance to Syrian rebels.
  3. We will continue to draw on our antiterrorism capabilities to fight ISIS. We will work to cut off their funding and their global support structure. We will work to rally the international community around this effort.
  4. We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people devastated by ISIS in the region.

Some of this policy is built on an obvious truth: There can be no purely military solution to ISIS. ISIS is a daughter of al-Qaeda, and organization that Obama claimed on Face the Nation on Sunday to have systematically dismantled. It is sister to al-Shabab and al-Nusra. All have grown and flourished in the wake of war, and they draw into their ranks young men radicalized in and displaced by war.

If you destroy one terrorist group by force, you get another. And because they share the same DNA and they metastasize, you can’t simply pick them off one-by-one and expect peace to reign.

The only way to destroy ISIS is by systemic change. Whether Obama’s comprehensive campaign will do that is the big question facing Congress, America, and the long-suffering people of the Middle East.

Obama’s speech reiterated policies already widely known, but in some ways it was also a striking reversal of policy. Obama promoted ISIS from the “JV,” explicitly recognizing it as a real threat that must be destroyed. He reversed his August 8 comment, that people who favor arming Syrian rebels live in a “fantasy world”; we will now arm and train them.

In another way, it was a clear defense of another policy. His decision to return only non-combat troops to Iraq was a clear rejection of the possibility that his policy to remove all combat troops was mistaken. The ground fight will belong to Syria and Iraq, not to America.

Drawing a distinction between this policy and our war in Iraq, Obama said that there will be military action, adding that “any time we take military action, there are risks involved.” He compared our strategy against ISIS to the strategy that “we have successfully followed in Yemen … for years.”

Obama ended his speech with a paean to America. “America is better positioned today” than any other nation in the world to seize the future. Our economy is resurgent; we have the best scientific and technological talent, and we will lead the fight against Ebola; America remains the essential nation that has led the world to oppose Russia in Ukraine, and will lead the world against ISIS. “America’s endless blessings bestow and enduring burden” to lead. America remains relevant.

The policy laid out by Obama tonight was a reaction to falling poll numbers, outrage over the beheadings of journalists, and growing unease about ISIS and America’s role in the world. It was an attempt to reset his Iraq policy without taking serious risks, an attempt to turn attention to what he believes are his successes and to convince listeners that America is and will remain the one essential, dominant nation in the world.

It is probably not a policy that will destroy ISIS. A plan to roll back ISIS gains is an invitation for endless mission creep and ever-deepening American involvement, money and lives. Obama is right to distrust calls to that kind of policy. But if destroying ISIS and eliminating the conditions for a new ISIS can’t be done by a military intervention that Americans are able and willing to pay for, it is also true that ISIS can’t be destroyed without military force.

There must be boots on the ground, and if they’re not American boots, America must support them unflinchingly and unstintingly. Half measures will be as useless as half a bridge leading halfway across a chasm. Obama failed to lay out a convincing plan for a whole bridge. His comments about Islam indicated that he is not yet willing to face the true nature of ISIS, nor does he understand who difficult it will be to uproot. That plan may form as he attempts to hash out details of his plan within his administration and with Congress. It is essential that it does.


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  • Tim Kern

    Dear Mr. President: The first “I” in “ISIL” stands for “Islamic.” The “S” stands for “State.”
    So, please don’t tell us that ISIL isn’t religious, and isn’t a state, even as you use their own identification as you tell us that what is, isn’t.

    And it doesn’t depend on what your definition of “is,” is. It’s their definition. There is no such thing as your reality. There is only reality. Which is the reality. Anything else is delusion.