As we suspected, President Obama tried in his Wednesday-night speech to make it sound like he was doing something new when he, in fact, he is not. Moreover, in describing his response, he made plain that he doesn’t take the threat to the homeland seriously. For a threat his advisers say is greater than that posed by al-Qaeda after 2001, he proposed measures suitable for Yemen and Somalia. No, really — that’s the plan.
For starters, the president doesn’t believe the Islamic State is a current threat to the U.S.: “So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States.” That explains a lot of what followed and the total lack of urgency he conveyed.
Hundreds of U.S. military personnel are already on the ground training Iraqis. The question was whether Obama would agree to bolster that force and provide additional help, such as communications and special ops, and avoid signaling the limits to our commitment. He announced that a grand total of 950 troops (half of which are already there) will provide assistance, intelligence and training. (Outside experts have put the more appropriate number at 10,000-15,000.) As his addiction to anti-Bush foreign policy dictates, he declared, “But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” And if airstrikes are not sufficient? If the 950 military men and women are not enough? Well, that is always the rub.
We already are providing (supposedly) some belated, minimal assistance to the Free Syrian Army, although non-jihadis have said they need more potent weapons and more of them. Are we going to upgrade the quality and quantity of aid? All Obama would say was: “I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.” Is this more of the same or an improvement in weaponry?
He insisted, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” But if the Islamic State, which occupies vast territory and is highly trained and very well organized, than I suppose it won’t work.
The president’s use of these countries for comparison is telling. He didn’t list Libya, where this strategy failed miserably. Libya is now war-torn, another haven for jihadists. It was where four Americans lost their lives because no one in the administration was willing to provide on-the-ground assistance to stabilize the country and, as the country’s central government crumbled, failed to anticipate a jihadist threat. Moreover, the idea that we can leave U.S. troops out of it has resulted in the near-disintegration of Iraq. Obama simply won’t recognize error. He refuses to learn the lessons of failure because he doesn’t recognize that he has failed.
Even Yemen is an odd comparison. In a speech Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to anticipate the “look, no ground troops” approach. “And, of course, we’ve all seen how eager the President was to declare an end to the War on Terror. But as the President was focused on unwinding or reversing past policies through executive order, the threat from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups only metastasized,” McConnell recalled. “Uprisings in North Africa and the broader Middle East resulted in additional ungoverned space in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. There were prison breaks in Iraq, and Pakistan, and Libya, and the release of hundreds of prisoners in Egypt. Terrorists also escaped from prisons in Yemen, a country that’s no more ready to detain the terrorists at Guantanamo today than they were in 2009. “ In other words, jihadis there are “manageable” – not a comforting model of success.
It is hard to discern what is new, what strategy Obama has actually come up with after months — years, really — of doing nothing serious to combat a threat both to the U.S. and our allies. We already are conducting some airstrikes. He said the strikes will extend beyond humanitarian assistance, but what will they go after and how will we know what to hit with so small a force on the ground? Again, we don’t really know. We don’t even know when airstrikes will be extended to Syria. All he would say was, “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.” Hmm, but do these currently threaten our country? He seems not to believe so.
He says he will lead a “broad” coalition (about 40 countries less than the coalition President George W. Bush organized). But what will they do? So far, he says, “allies are flying planes with us over Iraq; sending arms and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian opposition; sharing intelligence; and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.” But wait: “In the coming days [Kerry] will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands.” So who has signed up and what countries are helping us to rally the Sunnis of Iraq, a job Obama evidently is leaving to others?
There appeared to be a deliberate effort to downplay the expectations. (This makes sense since his plan will accomplish so little.) When he said the effort will be a “steady, relentless effort,” you got the feeling it will also be very, very slow so that we won’t be able to assess its success, at least not on his watch.
In other words, Obama has dressed up his preference for half-measures, called it a “strategy” and signaled to foes and friends that we don’t have the wherewithal to devote our full effort to the fight. As Charles Krauthammer remarked before the speech on Fox News, “If [Obama] thinks that Yemen and Somalia are comparable to ISIS, I mean he’s living on the moon. The real comparison here is to the original Afghan campaign.” Or to Iraq, which blew up on his watch when troops on the ground departed.
Ending on an incongruous note about domestic policy, Obama seemed to suggest that this what really matters — getting back to his agenda at home.
I wonder how Hillary Clinton feels about this. Is she willing to offer something more “aggressive” and “decisive,” as her spinners claim, or is she in agreement with the president? The latter would suggest that she is simply Obama with better spinners. If a reporter ropes her into a serious interview, he or she might ask her what she would do. She wants to be commander in chief, doesn’t she?