In his Islamic State speech, President Obama said many of the right things. Most importantly, he finally got the mission right: degrade and destroy the enemy.
This alone will probably get him a bump in the polls, which have dropped to historic lows. But his strategic problem remains: the disconnect between (proclaimed) ends and means.
He’s sending an additional 475 American advisers to Iraq. He says he’s broadening the air campaign, but that is merely an admission that the current campaign was always about more than just protecting U.S. personnel in Irbil and saving Yazidis on mountaintops. It was crucially about providing air support for the local infantry, Kurdish and Iraqi.
The speech’s only news was the promise to expand the air campaign into Syria and (finally) seriously arm the secular opposition. But this creates a major problem for Obama. Just a month ago, he ridiculed the non-jihadist rebels as nothing but a bunch of “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.” Now he deputizes them as our Syrian shock troops. So he seems finally to have found his Syria strategy: F-16s flying air support for pharmacists in tanks.
Not to worry, says the president. We’ll have lots of other help — “a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.” He then proceeded to name not a single member of this stout assembly or offer even an approximate number.
Democrats have a habit of accusing George W. Bush of going it alone in Iraq. According to the Center of Military History of the U.S. Army, Bush had 37 nations with us. They sent more than 25,000 troops. So far, Obama has a coalition of nine: eight NATO members plus Australia. How many of those — or of the much touted Arab coalition behind us — do you think will contribute any troops at all?
Why, this grand coalition does not even include many congressional Democrats. That’s why Obama hasn’t asked for Congress’s authorization. Democrats are ambivalent about this endeavor. With an election coming up, they are terrified of casting a vote supporting it.
And what will this campaign look like? Not Iraq or Afghanistan, the president reassured the nation. The model will be Somalia and Yemen.
Is he serious? First, there’s no comparing the scale. This year has seen 16 airstrikes in Yemen, two in Somalia. Two! That doesn’t even count as a pinprick.
Second, there is no comparing the stakes. Yemen and Somalia are strategically marginal. The Islamic State controls a vast territory in the heart of oil-rich Mesopotamia, threatening everything of importance in the Middle East.
Third, are these results we want to emulate? Yemen and Somalia are failed states — unsafe, unstable, bristling with active untamed insurgencies. We occasionally pick off a leader by drone — an absurdly inadequate strategy if the goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, which the administration itself calls a terror threat unlike any we’ve ever seen.
And beyond the strategy’s halfhearted substance is its author’s halfhearted tone. Obama’s reluctance and ambivalence are obvious. This is a man driven to give this speech by public opinion. It shifted radically with the televised beheading of two Americans. Every poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly want something to be done — and someone to lead the doing.
Hence Wednesday’s speech. Its origins were more political than strategic. Its purpose was to save the wreckage of a presidency at its lowest ebb. (If this were a parliamentary democracy, Obama would lose a vote of nonconfidence and be out of office.) Its point was to give the appearance of firmness and purpose, i.e., leadership.
You could sense that Obama had been dragged unwillingly into this new unproclaimed war. Which was reminiscent of Obama’s speech five years ago announcing the surge in Afghanistan. In the very next sentence, he announced a fixed date of withdrawal. Then added, lest anyone miss his lack of enthusiasm, “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
Meaning, not Afghanistan.
At the time, I called it the most uncertain trumpet ever sounded by a president summoning the country to war. I fear the campaign against the Islamic State will be a reprise.
Even the best war plans run into trouble. This one already suffers from a glaring mismatch of ends and means — and a grand coalition that is largely fictional. Difficulties are sure to come. How will the commander in chief, already reluctant and ambivalent, react to setbacks — the downing of the first American pilot or perhaps a mini-Tet Offensive in Baghdad’s Green Zone engulfing the U.S. Embassy?
On that day, we will need a steady, determined president committed to the mission. Do we have one even now?
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