- The Islamic State isn’t an immediate threat to the US right now, but it could be someday, which means it is now, and my head hurts. Obama seemed to be trying to do two things in this speech: calm Americans’ fears about the threat IS poses, and also respond to those fears by assuring Americans that he’s prepared to use force “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” That’s kind of a tightrope, and I’m not sure he succeeded at either. He argued that IS is a threat right now just within its own region (“we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland”), but also that it could be a threat to the US one day “if left unchecked.” So in a sense the speech made it clear that there’s no point debating the extent to which IS actually represents a threat to the US, because we’re treating them as one regardless. Obama also raised the specter of foreign IS coming home and committing terrorist acts here, which is certainly a concern but not one that’s unique to IS and probably not one that can be alleviated by an air campaign in Iraq.
- After years of unsuccessful and counter-productive Iraq Wars, we’re sure to find success and productivity with this War in Iraq. We’re back on a war footing, regardless of the assurances about No Boots ever being On The Ground (other than the ones that are, but ho hum). We’re going to strike IS from the air and arm and train the Iraqi Army (because that’s worked out well so far) and the Kurdish Peshmerga (which probably guarantees an armed Kurdish rebellion once this whole IS thing is put to bed). Obama stressed that this additional military support was contingent on political reconciliation between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes, which was smart (IS won’t be beaten until Iraq’s Sunnis decide they’d rather be part of Iraq than IS), but we’ve decided to step up our involvement just because there’s a new government in place, which leaves us with little leverage if that new government decides not to actually pursue real reconciliation. We might have been smarter to hold back until Abadi actually made some concrete steps toward solving the political crisis underlying the military one.
So many more feels below.
- We still have no idea what to do about IS in Syria. This was where I thought the speech failed most. For several days this speech had been hyped as “Obama unveiling his strategy for combating ISIS,” as though we should expect some new details about a comprehensive plan to fight IS throughout the region. Instead we got a 15 minute run through about the threat, a list of stuff we’d already announced we were doing, and some Nice Talk about America. The only concrete talk (there was some vague talk about bombing targets in Syria, but that’s all it was) about Syria was a resurrection of the “plan” to arm and train “moderate” Free Syrian Army rebels, who by this point are harder to find than a unicorn. This is, it must be said, a “plan” that Obama has rejected multiple times as being unlikely to change anything about the Syrian Civil War, and it must also be said that these “good” rebels are some of the same folks who may very well have handed Steven Sotloff to IS. But OK, we’re arming the moderates, assuming we can find any. Who are we arming them against? Assad? IS? Both? The answer matters, both because it will dictate the kind of aid we provide our new clients (they’ll need a lot more anti-air weaponry to fight Assad than they’ll need to combat IS), and because if we’re expecting them to stand up against both of the war’s heavyweights — Assad and IS — at the same time, they’re highly likely to fail and fail spectacularly.
- We are not helping Bashar al-Assad or Iran because we aren’t NOW WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP ABOUT THIS WE’RE TOTALLY NOT OK? We “cannot rely” on Assad and we’re apparently pretending, for the purposes of this speech, that Iran doesn’t exist. Just because we’re about to launch a major effort to destroy Assad’s most dangerous opponent and we’re about to provide air cover to Iraqi forces that will probably include Iranian troops, that doesn’t mean we’re on the same side as those guys, because Reasons.
- Yemen and Somalia are great counter-terrorist success stories and totally applicable to IS, please just trust us. Obama repeatedly referred to our great successes going after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Al Shabaab in Somalia (without Boots On The Ground!) as examples of what we can do against IS. But neither one of those cases is particularly applicable nor is either one a particular success story. For one thing, we’ve been periodically pounding away at both AQAP and Al Shabaab for several years now, and both of those groups are still going fairly strong. AQAP, despite our efforts, is still judged by counter-terrorism types in DC to be the network most capable of attacking the US directly. There’s also the discouraging fact that both Yemen and Somalia are basically failed states, which would be a pretty horrifying outcome for either Iraq or Syria.
- We’re partnering with lots of partners, who will be great partners in our partnership. Another reason why This War Will Be Different is because we’re going to have lots of partners picking up lots of slack, especially of the Front Line variety. Obama already has a ten nation coalition mostly (apart from Turkey) outside the region that has committed to Doing Something about IS, but these aren’t the countries that are going to be on the Front Line either. That job is going to fall to the Iraqi Army, the Kurds, and the FSA, but also presumably to regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and maybe Egypt. The good news here is that the effort to engage regional partners is already working, as Saudi Arabia has agreed to “provide a base to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters.” The bad news is that Saudi Arabia (yes, that Saudi Arabia) has agreed to “provide a base to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters.” We need regional partners (especially Sunni partners, so we don’t look like we’re unfairly targeting Sunnis) if we’re going to undertake this fight, but man, the pickings in that respect are slim.
- No president is ever going to ask Congress for permission to go to war ever again. I mean, I’m happy to one day be proven wrong about this, but if this president, who has openly talked about the need to repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against Al Qaeda and the 2002 AUMF on Iraq, is prepared to stretch the spirit of both of those laws past the breaking point in order to justify a new action against a new enemy rather than seek a new authorization from Congress, then it’s hard to see how any president will ever go back to Congress for military authorization again. This is as much a sign of the complete breakdown in Congress’s ability to do anything as it is a sign of Obama’s conceptions of presidential authority, but it’s disappointing anyway. Obama would like to have Congressional support, but he won’t seek it, and Congress will most likely be happy to complain about executive overreach while not ever actually taking a vote, despite the fact that it could take such a vote any time its leaders feel like it, whether Obama “seeks” one or not.
- America is really, really cool and good. There was a substantial portion of the speech dedicated to pointing out how awesome America is. I’m not sure why any of it was included in this particular speech. People were expecting to hear the outline of a plan to attack IS, not pablum about job creation, or how great our universities are, or how the auto industry is doing. His remarks on how “America…has rallied the world against Russian aggression” and how “America…can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola” were especially bizarre, given that Russia is still on a pretty aggressive posture right now and that the Ebola outbreak is still pretty, you know, uncontained. There’s a time for any president to make Americans feel good about themselves, but this wasn’t really one of those times.
- The Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a State; discuss.
This was probably more analysis than that content-lite speech really warranted, but here we are anyway. I’m skeptical that this “plan,” such as it is, can work and can be done without metastasizing into something much broader and messier.