It is a long, long way from the “JV team” to the “network of death.” It is even longer from the arguments of President Obama’s 2014 West Point commencement address — which ridiculed “tough talk,” criticized a “military solution” in Syria and ignited various straw men of military adventurism — to the substance of Obama’s 2014 United Nations address. It is the remarkable shift between the speeches — separated by four months and many ideological light-years — that is historic.
Conservatives who obsessed about the reference to Ferguson, Mo., in Obama’s U.N. remarks managed to miss a herd of charging, trumpeting elephants in the room. The president used the General Assembly’s green-marble backdrop to assert that: (1) Global order is under mortal, unappeasable threat from jihadism; (2) The United States has an indispensable leadership role in confronting the disorders of the Middle East; and (3) A comprehensive response to jihadism will include the military preemption of emerging threats — in this case, conducted by a coalition of the willing without United Nations approval.
And the United Nations applauded.
For the first time during his stewardship of the war on terrorism — or whatever it is called nowadays — Obama at least sounds single-minded. If not quite Henry V, he is no longer Hamlet. Having settled on a strategic approach in Iraq and Syria, Obama seems anxious to explain it, rather than to hastily move on to domestic matters.
What he describes is a phased, multiyear approach. The United States is disrupting immediate threats to the homeland, both from al-Qaeda-related terrorists (such as the Khorasan group) and the Islamic State. Having helped secure a measure of legitimacy for Iraq’s government, the Obama administration is attempting to build up ground forces where they can be found (or recruited) — the Iraqi military, the Kurdish pesh merga and national guard units from Sunni areas. Since efforts in Iraq cannot succeed with an Islamic State haven next door in Syria, the United States (with the helpful veneer of an Arab coalition) is using airstrikes to “degrade” enemy forces across the border, buying time while non-Islamist Syrian opposition forces can be trained (overtly by the Pentagon and covertly by the CIA).
The objective: Roll back Islamic State forces in Iraq over the next year or so while building capacity in Syria. If, at that point, the Islamic State is retreating and off-balance, Syrian ground forces might begin to operate effectively with U.S. air and (perhaps) Special Operations support.
For Obama, the most surprising element of this strategy is something he didn’t say. Uncharacteristically, he did not set a deadline for the completion of military action. The administration knows this will be a long fight.
Much of this strategy remains inchoate, and questions are alarmingly easy to raise. Can the Iraqi government actually function? Will the Syrian rebels cohere? Are the proposed means sufficient to the stated ends?
Putting such issues aside (which a columnist has the luxury of doing), it is an unreservedly good thing that the president is no longer living in denial or seeking excuses for retreat. Two cheers for Obama. So why does he make it so hard to give a third?
Policy is only one element of leadership. In explaining his approach, Obama has a number of unfortunate and (apparently) unbreakable habits. He has a maddening tendency to describe the events of his own presidency as if he were a spectator or commentator. As the Islamic State rose, Obama recently told CBS’s Steve Kroft, “they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” They? He talks as though his past judgments were infallible, even though his current strategy consists mainly of measures — arming the Syrian rebels, bombing in Syria, strengthening Iraqi institutions — that he had previously ignored, dismissed or mocked. Through delay, all are now more costly and less likely to succeed.
And Obama remains reluctant to level with Americans about the nature of American involvement. First it was “no boots on the ground” — though we have 1,600 troops and counting. Then it was no “combat mission” — which seemed (absurdly) to prevent the use of Special Operations forces. Most recently, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken ruled out a “U.S. ground invasion” — leaving monumental wiggle room. Rather than downplaying American risks, Obama should be explaining why they are worth taking.
These are more than quibbles. But the two cheers are genuine. We need the determined, unfamiliar leader who spoke at the United Nations to succeed.
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