Obama: Americans Be Prepared to Defeat ISIL, Not for War

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

United States airstrikes on the brutal and extremist Islamic militant group known as ISIL (or in other publications as ISIS or simply the Islamic State) began a month ago. In the intervening weeks, the U.S. military has conducted a total of 138 bombing runs across Iraq, aimed at degrading and destroying the militants’ ability to threaten the United States and its allies. ISIL has retaliated by beheading two American journalists held hostage in Syria, the second theater in which the group operates. But while military operations are well under way, President Barack Obama has yet to outline an ultimate goal. When pressured by a reporter to say whether he would seek congressional approval before expanding operations to include Syria, the president explained in an August 28 press conference that his administration doesn’t “have a strategy yet.” That admission brought on a wave of criticism from Republican lawmakers.

But Obama has indicated that he will begin framing U.S. strategy this week, first during a meeting of congressional leaders on Tuesday and second in a speech scheduled for Wednesday — the eve of the 13th anniversary of September 11, the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S.-soil.

In a Saturday interview for NBC’s Meet the Press – which coincided with the beginning of a new round of airstrikes on Iraq — Chuck Todd asked Obama whether he is “preparing the country to go back to war.” The president has pledged many times, especially at key junctures of the evolving crises in Iraq and Syria, that his administration would not be putting troops on the ground to take control of the conflict. Obama did not exactly answer Todd’s question. Rather, the president’s response was ambiguous. “I’m preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL,” he said. All the president’s comments appear groomed in order to dispel any fears the American public may have about the danger the rise of the Islamic State poses to national security and the extent to which the United States will become involved in Iraq to defeat of the terrorist organization.

Despite claiming the administration had not yet devised a strategy to contain ISIL, Obama did suggest in his  Saturday interview that he had already planned out a course of action; the interview laid the groundwork for his upcoming Wednesday speech, shedding light on how the president and his advisers want to frame the crisis for the public. Following the broadcast of the interview, NBC Chiefs Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell noted that it was “an incredible interview, in that” Obama laid out his strategy “point by point.” In simple terms, his comments did outline a basic plan: continue the air war against ISIS in Iraq, with eventual support being supplied by Iraqi troops and other states in the region. Then the United States would turn its focus to Syria, where rebels have been fighting the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad with only a little assistance from the Obama administration. “He’s got the strategy. The question now will be, will it work?” asked Mitchell. This basic plan held few or no surprises, but he left out many of the key details.

Todd described the president’s Wednesday speech as containing a symbolic question for the public. “What are you asking of the American people on Wednesday? You say you’re giving a speech. That’s the type of thing, I assume, you’re preparing the country for something. What are you asking of them?” he asked. And Obama answered succinctly. “So what I’m going to be ask– asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat,” the president said. “Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it.” But where it is clear the administration has settled a strategic course of action, the plan he outlined to Todd contained few details. “Here’s how we’re going to deal with it. I am going to be asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is. And it’s going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region.”

He was quick to describe how effective American efforts have been thus far, and expressed optimism that a stable Iraqi government is in reach.

“So what I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, make sure we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground. The second step was to make sure that we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates, That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil [the capital of the oil-rich Kurdish Regional Government] were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.

“The next phase is now to start going on some offense. We have to get an Iraqi government in place. And I’m optimistic that next week, we should be able to get that done.”

Iraq did swear in a new government on Monday, paving the way for additional U.S. support. In early August, when announcing the beginning of the bombing campaigns, Obama pledged that once a new Iraqi government was formed U.S. aid would increase. The new cabinet, with prime minister Haider al-Abadi, complies with U.S. demands for an inclusive government, incorporating the previously disenfranchised Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Just as the details of the plan were vague, so too were the president’s comments on congressional authorization. And Todd pressed him for further clarification. “I– I– I’m confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people. And I’m always going to do what’s necessary to protect the American people,” the president replied, indicating that he does not believe congressional authorization is needed. “But I do think it’s important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy in, to debate it,” Obama added.

As is the president’s habit, there were several points he made extremely clear.

Defeating ISIL and stabilizing Iraq must be a unified effort

“We are going to be as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over.” And “we’re going to need Sunni states to step up– not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, United– Arab Emirates– Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed– are– are more directed at them right now than they are us.” Obama has called on Sunni countries in the Middle East to help formulate a military and political response to the Islamic State.

And Obama told Todd that “the good news is coming back from the most recent NATO meeting [and] the entire international community understands that this is something that has to be dealt with.”

Of course, coalition building is no easy task. It is diplomatically time consuming; deciding who to include is a messy task; and planning is complicated by the fact that the United States and its allies share a vested interest in defeating the extremist group with some governments they normally oppose. But on Monday, the Arab League, a twenty-two-member organization, agreed to partner with the United States to defeat ISIL. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry departed to the Middle East, where he will visit Amman, Jordan and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki described the trip as “coalition-building” to reporters on Monday.

No troops will be placed on the ground

“This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war,” Obama said. “What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. … We’re not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.”

But Obama did sidestep a number of questions.

Did he underestimate the ISIS threat back in January?

After Obama said that “ultimately we’re going to defeat ‘em,” referring to ISIL, Todd noted that his view were a “long way from when you described them as a JV team,” and asked if that assessment was based on “bad intelligence” or misjudgement. “Keep– keep– keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL,” Obama responded. “I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11.”

For reference, in a January article written for The New Yorker, David Remnick noted that “in the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been ‘decimated.’ I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.”

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told Remnick. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The key point then, in Obama’s defense, is that Remnick had previously referred to “various rebel factions in Syria.” Yet, to the president’s critics, his misjudgement of ISIL is representative not of a habit to use the wrong words or speak without considering the implications of those words, but rather, it shows the president has a fundamentally misguided view of the world. Many have take his “jayvee” comment as evidence Obama sees the world not as it is, with persistent dangers, but as he imagines it to be. “Sometimes words are mistakes; they’re just poorly put. But sometimes they’re a manifestation of one’s deep belief in the world and that’s what you really get with President Obama,” Peter H. Wehner — a former adviser to President George W. Bush — told The New York Times.

What about Syria?

Obama did not say whether he would authorize military action in Syria, the base of operations for ISIL, even though Todd commented that: “obviously, if you’re going to defeat ISIS…You have got to go to Syria in some form or another.” However, the interviewer gave Obama little chance to respond as he pressed the president to explain why the administration would not consider putting “boots on the ground.”

“You’ve ruled out boots on the ground. And I’m curious, have you only ruled them out simply for domestic political reasons? Or is there another reason you’ve ruled out American boots on the ground? Because your own– your own guys have said, ‘You can’t defeat ISIS with air strikes alone.’ noted Todd. For example, on August 21, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? he answer is ‘no’.”

In answer, Obama once again reiterated how the United States cannot serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. “We don’t have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.” A sustainable strategy, according to the president, is to put Iraqi and Syrian boots on the ground. But given the disarray of the rebel factions in Syria and the uncertainty of the endgames of the various groups, the Obama administration has reluctant thus far to arm and otherwise support those fighting Assad. And critics have argued that the lack of unity, and possible links to terrorist organizations, make aligning with the Free Syrian Army a difficult proposition. Still, Obama indicated that now the United States will “have to develop– a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with.”

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