Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Obama and ISIS:
Preview to a walk on the high wire

THE FEATS of the Flying Wallendas are a walk in the park compared with what President Obama has to do tonight. The legendary aerialists’ accomplishments on the high wire were impressive, but in a televised prime-time address to the nation tonight, the president will be called on to perform a balancing act that’s more profoundly difficult.

Tonight at 9 pm ET, Obama will make the case for a more aggressive military posture against the ISIS terrorist fighters rampaging through Iraq and Syria. He’ll seek to adopt a plan that commits the U.S. armed forces to a battle in Iraq and Syria that doesn’t include troops actually being on Syrian or Iraqi soil (consistent with his own flat-out rejection of boots on the ground). He’ll presumably clarify his call for a coalition of regional entities doing the heaviest lifting in combat, despite persistent doubts that those forces will be enough to get the job done.

And the president who said, about a week ago, that he didn’t have a strategy for fighting ISIS will have to convince the American public that he has one now, as well as the ability to follow through on whatever plan he devises. And this in the face of cratering approval numbers for his handling of foreign policy — approval numbers that could have a follow-on impact on Democrats in November.

Obama will have to summon an equipoise, and communicate an urgency he’s never had to call on before, at what may be the most critical juncture of his presidency.

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The president can take some comfort in some of the results of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that finds 74 percent of Americans support a harder military stance against ISIS, with either air strikes alone or air strikes in combination with combat forces. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found 71 percent support for air strikes against the wildly metastasizing ISIS force. Both numbers reflect broad outrage over ISIS’ murders of two American journalists.

But more generally, he’s up against other numbers in the NBC/WSJ survey: 67 percent of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track,” and only 32 percent approve of his stewardship of U.S. foreign policy — an all-time low for the president.

Even worse, and more surprising, that poll determined that 47 percent of Americans think the United States is “less safe” now than it was before 9/11 — this on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the day that transformed America.

The picture for the Obama White House through a political lens isn’t much better. The NBC/WSJ poll found that 45 percent of the country prefer Republicans being in control of Congress, up from 39 percent last October. When you factor in the standing assumption that Democrats will be disinclined to show up at the polls in November, the president faces a political equivalent of DEFCON 1.

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THE PRESIDENT must be prepared to address three questions tonight:

First: What’s the direct national interest in escalating armed action against ISIS? With domestic measures against possible terrorism at a high level — anyone who’s been to an American airport in the last ten years knows this already — it may be hard to dramatically communicate the direct threat ISIS poses to the United States. Despite the new poll numbers indicating support for more military action, Obama still needs to spell out just what’s at stake for a war-exhausted nation, and to do so in clear, unambiguous terms that keep the country focused on the challenge.

Second: What’s the goal? Support for American action in the region, strong right now, could wither without a firm timetable for our involvement. The president needs to set a feasible time frame, even a provisional one, that establishes a beginning and an end for what the United States does. There’s little patience for another open-ended misadventure, and there’s something wrong if the world’s pre-eminent military force can’t be the timekeeper for an action of its own design.

Third: Will this be a truly coalitional effort? After years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this country has had a belly-full of war over the last dozen years. With countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan; Lebanon, Turkey and others mostly sitting on the sidelines in the past, the American public’s justifiably wary of a situation where Lucy moves the football just as Charlie Brown gets ready to kick it — a bait-and-switch that leaves the United States once again doing the grunt work with little or no participation from the countries in the region with the most to lose. Just because other countries with skin in the game can’t do everything, militarily speaking, is no justification for their being expected to do nothing.

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There’s indication Obama is moving on this last matter. Reuters reported Tuesday that the United States has circulated a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council resolution that, Reuters says, “generally targets foreign extremist fighters traveling to conflicts anywhere in the world,” with an unstated but obvious emphasis on the ISIS organization in Iraq and Syria. Obama will chair a meeting at the U.N. on Sept. 24 to address this.

It’s rare, or at least infrequent, when events foreign and domestic come to a head at almost the same time in a way that has the potential to define an American presidency. President Obama faces just such a time right now. How he responds to this conjunction of crisis and opportunity may well determine the arc of the last two years of his time in the White House. What he says tonight should make clear, like nothing else can, just what that response is.

The Flying Wallendas had it easy by comparison.

Image credits: Obama in the East Room, September 2013: Pool. NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll breakouts: © 2014 The Wall Street Journal. ISIS fighters: From ISIS video.

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