Obama: Has ISIL Made the President Reconsider Peace?

Some — like the New Yorker’s John Cassidy — saw President Barack Obama’s Wednesday night speech detailing how the United States will “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” as business-like, lacking the inspiring tone that typically clothes his national addresses calling for a minimum wage hike and a reform of the immigration policy. The lack of inspiring rhetoric was especially notable given it came on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But others — like Time’s Michael Scherer — saw the change in the president’s manner as a positive. “A President in Prime-Time Command After 2 Years of Frustration” read the title of his piece, which argued that “Obama squared to the camera, slowed his delivery and filled each syllable with all the gravity he had.” The takeaway, Scherer wrote, is that the United States will meet the threat of ISIL, the extremist Islamic militant group known in other publications as ISIS or simply the Islamic State, “with strength and resolve.” The White House even elevated the importance of the address by moving it to a prime-slot from earlier in the day; officials told The Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration wanted to put Americans on alert that the country faces a serious threat from the Islamic State.

Wednesday’s speech emphasized the threat ISIL presents:

‘We continue to face a terrorist threat.  We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.  And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.  At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain.  And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear:  ISIL is not “Islamic.”  No religion condones the killing of innocents.  And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.  And ISIL is certainly not a state.  It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.  It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.  ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.  And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

One could argue that this speech is less about Obama — and his ability to project strength internationally or handle foreign crises — and more about the return of the United States to the center of one of the biggest conflicts in the Middle East. But both points are equally important to examine because the are closely intertwined.

Obama campaigned on the promise that he would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring U.S. troops home. “This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize,” he said in August 2008, as the Democratic presidential nominee. “This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century.” He steadfastly pursued that goal, withdrawing U.S. military forces from Iraq by December 2011 — at which time a major shift in public opinion was underway. Since the fall of 2011, the American public has grown increasingly more pessimistic about U.S. achievements in Iraq, and as of January of this year, before the threat of ISIL had fully emerged, Pew found that just 37 percent of Americans believed that the United States mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq, a 19-point decline since 2011. Because Obama spent the first six years of his presidency working to extract the country from the Middle East, an effort largely supported by the public, the explanation he gave the American people for why his administration has decided to engage in another Middle Eastern conflict needs to be vetted.

His speech shines a light on the underlying controversies of Obama’s presidency. The key question is whether the return of the U.S. military to Iraq is evidence that Obama was too naive when he was first elected or whether the expansion of the conflict is merely an intelligent response by a president forced to address an unexpected crisis. The key is analyzing not the rhetorical tone of his words, but the content. The steps the president announced were not unexpected: Another 475 U.S. service members will be sent to Iraq to “support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence, and equipment,” and U.S. airstrikes will be expanded to include targets within Syria, the second theater in which ISIL operates.

The president also called Congress to provide resources to “train and equip” the moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State. And while this may seem a serious escalation of the conflict, Obama was sure to reiterate that the steps he is taking to destroy and degrade ISIL will not mire the United States in another decades-long, costly (in both life and treasury) conflict. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he insisted. “This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground.”

And he pointed to counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Yemen — where drones, aircraft, and special forces have been used — as proof that low-impact involvement is possible and can be successful. While it can be argued that Obama’s speech presented him as president that had come to terms with the reality that the United States must be intricately involved in defeating ISIL, and is finally acting as commander in chief, as Time’s Scherer suggested, such an analysis belies the number of challenges facing Obama; because under the rhetoric and succinct plan to send additional advisers and expand airstrikes, the president failed to convey the ultimate endgame, and how far the United States will go to accomplish it. And the president acknowledged that “I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. . . .What I do know is that . . . it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.”

That Obama, a president who has built his image as leader who wanted to decrease the global footprint of the United States, has made a case for intervention, he must show his change of position was well reasoned and well thought out, or risk coming off as a naive lawmaker who had little experience in foreign affairs.

The first challenge is convincing the American people that his strategy will indeed “degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIL.” While the public has grown increasingly pessimistic about U.S. achievements in Iraq since the fall of 2011, almost two-thirds of respondents to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll believe it is the nation’s best interest to confront ISIL. Only 13 percent answered that action was not the right move. In fact, 40 percent of those polled said the conflict should be limited to airstrikes, while 34 percent stated they approve of both airstrikes and the use of ground troops. The survey also found that the share of Americans who support of a more active role for the United States on the global stage has grown in recent months, meaning when Obama spoke Wednesday, his was addressing an audience more open to military action than at any other time since he took office.

Still a bigger challenge is explaining “what are the strategic objectives of the United States?” as Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution who worked at the State Department from 2009 to 2012, told The Washington Post.“You can say ‘no boots on the ground,’ but that does not really solve their anxiety,” she said. “They want to know what defines the end of our engagement.” In meetings with congressional leaders, the president has indicated that the campaign will take at least a year to complete, and probably last beyond the conclusion of Obama’s term in office in January 2017. But again, that rough estimate is just a figure. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (plus the U.S.-assisted toppling of Muammar Gaddafi) show that the United States has had difficulty keeping control of volatile regions for extended period of time.

And while the Obama administration has come to depend on local forces, instead of employing combat troops, as a means to avoid being stuck in a prolonged conflict, some defense officials and policy experts believe such tactics make failure more likely. And local troops in Iraq and Syria are no exception; in Iraq, it is possible the predominantly-Shiite military forces have been penetrated by Iranian agents, not to mention the fact their weakness allowed for the advancement of ISIL originally; and, in Syria, the biggest obstacle is fragmentation of the forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Alawite regime, and the fact that the moderate Syrian opposition fighting ISIL and the government’s forces is not much of an army and possibly not that moderate. The Kurds, the minority group located in an oil-rich region of northern Iraq, with whom the United States has had a decades-long but occasionally uneasy partnership, have been gaining back ground. But the Kurdish fighting force — known as the Peshmerga — has not only been labeled by the U.S.Department of Defense as a terrorist organization, but given how the region has been marginalized by previous Iraqi governments, it does not have a strong interested in a unified Iraq.

Obama did state over the weekend that he encouraged Congress to debate strategy for defeating ISIL, but he had no plan to ask for authorization. “I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger,” Obama said in his White House address. And in that speech he made clear that he would not wait for a vote, and does not need a vote. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said.

In the past, Obama has been criticized by Republican hawks for “leading from behind,” or responding to slowly to national security problems abroad. But, by and large, Republicans in the House of Representatives support the president’s plan, and lawmakers indicated that they would support the president’s plan to destroy ISIS even though details are scarce. Even Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner of Ohio, believes that Congress should give the president authority to train and arm rebels in Syria, even though he argued the strategy is not enough to to eliminate the terrorist threat. “We only have one commander in chief,” Boehner said Thursday, according to Politico. “He laid out his plan. I would never tell the enemy what I was willing to do, or unwilling to do. But he is the commander in chief, he made that decision. At this point in time, it’s important that we give the president what he’s asking for. And we gotta keep our eye on the ball. The issue here is about defeating a terrorist threat that is real and imminent.”

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