President Obama will be giving an unusual prime-time speech tonight, explaining to the American public exactly what action his administration plans to take against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As of this morning, the details are still vague. He’ll be discussing “how the United States will pursue a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, according to NBC News. He won’t be asking for a Congressional authorization for the use of force. One new piece of news is that Obama has decided to launch air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria.
The news media may already be in the process of exaggerating the public’s desire for military action, which could accelerate the cycle in which politicians perceive a public desire and rush out to meet it, thereby feeding the perception that more aggressive action is both necessary and inevitable. As you watch all the coverage, keep in mind that the media loves war. It’s too simplistic to say this is just because it attracts readers and ratings. War is everything the news thirsts after: it’s big, it’s important, it’s historic, it’s dramatic, it’s full of conflict and excitement and uncertainty.
When military action is in the offing, it’s particularly important that we ask the right questions. So with Obama giving his speech tonight, here are some things we should be asking:
How long is this conflict likely to last? It’s safe to say that in 2001, if President Bush had said, “We’re going to invade Afghanistan, and by the way, tens of thousands of American troops are still going to be fighting there 13 years from now,” we would have had some more questions to ask. We obviously can’t know for sure how long this one will last, but if we’re starting something that could go on for years, Obama ought to tell us now. How forthcoming will he be on this front?
What are the factors that will affect the success of this mission, and how important is each one? No one with half a brain thinks we can just drop a bunch of bombs and that’ll take care of everything. So what has to happen politically, with the Iraqi government and other nations, for us to say that this battle has been won? How clear will Obama be on this score?
How will we know when we’ve succeeded enough to leave? We need to know, in very specific terms, what it will look like when our part in this conflict has come to an end.
ISIS seems to want nothing more than a confrontation with America. How do we deprive them of whatever they think they’ll gain from that? The group didn’t put videos online of them beheading American journalists because they wanted to avoid conflict with us; it was a direct provocation. So what exactly are they after, and are we making sure we aren’t helping them accomplish their own goals? Will Obama address this directly?
What will other countries be doing? Many have pointed out that nearly every country in the region, not to mention countries in other parts of the world, have an interest in seeing ISIS defeated. So how are they going to be contributing to the effort? Is this action going to be seen by the world as “America attacks ISIS,” or are other nations going to put a Muslim fact on the effort?
What are the implications of extending our involvement into Syria? We’ve been reluctant to get pulled into the brutal civil war that has raged there for years. Does this action make it more likely that we’ll become involved in that conflict? If we want to avoid that, how are we going to do it?
Is it possible that we could raise the danger to the United States even as we degrade ISIS? American officials have said there’s no specific evidence ISIS is preparing terrorist attacks within the U.S. But once we’re engaged in open warfare with them, is that something they might try to do? Will Obama frankly raise this possibility?
That’s just a start — we could probably come up with a dozen more vital questions to ask. But here are some questions we don’t need to bother asking as we discuss the speech President Obama gives tonight:
Was Obama sufficiently “tough” and “strong”? Thirteen years after 9/11, can’t we finally say that whether a president is “tough” has precisely nothing to do with whether we succeed or fail in our efforts to combat and prevent terrorism? Let’s stop fetishizing presidential “toughness” and admit it doesn’t make us safer.
What words did the President use? In recent years there’s been an absurd amount of attention paid to language choice, particularly among those trying to cast their opponents as insufficiently tough. Anyone counting the number of times Obama said the word “terrorism,” or noting whether he called ISIS “evil,” or pretending that the outcome of events is going to be different if some description was phrased slightly differently, is someone you shouldn’t be listening to.
Is this going to give Obama a boost in the polls? Forget about the fact that speeches never actually have an impact on polls. What matters now is the substance of what’s about to happen. If this operation goes well, the President will get a boost, as he should; if it goes poorly, his approval ratings will drop, as they should.
Is this conflict going to affect the midterm elections? It probably will, one way or another. But right now, as we’re about to begin it, that’s one of the least important questions we should be focusing on.
Let’s hope that the news media should have learned from the failures of the recent past (particularly the run-up to the Iraq War) and focuses on the things that matter. I’m not optimistic, but if we are going to be surprised, Obama’s speech tonight would be a good place to start.