Thursday, September 11, 2014

Poker player in chief:
The Obama ISIS strategy speech

ON THE EVE of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that ushered this nation into two wars, President Obama spoke for fifteen minutes from the White House and appeared to set the pretext for the United States getting into another one.

In his Wednesday address, the president hit all the expected high notes; the speech was tough yet charitable, reasoned and passionate, and properly characterized the ISIS terrorist organization for the threat it truly is, for Iraq, Syria and other states in the Middle East. The broad strokes he laid out for his strategy for ISIS’ obliteration were generally persuasive; the outline seemed solid enough. Now, of course, it’s a matter of filling in the details. And that’s where questions arise.

The president made clear his stated preference for getting countries in the region to do their fair share of the dirty work of fighting ISIS from the ground. “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,” he said. “Nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”

Read the president’s ISIS strategy speech in full

“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said. “Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” Obama said.

“Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

But later in the speech, Obama — forgive the metaphor — dropped the bomb that will resonate for Americans as much or more than anything else said Wednesday night.

“In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces,” he said. “Now that those teams have completed their work — and Iraq has formed a government — we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”

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THE PRESIDENT also said the United States would seek to assist the Syrian opposition in its fight against ISIS with training and financial assistance. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”

The U.S. will also continue humanitarian aid “to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities,” the president said.

For all its muscular language, Obama’s address aroused as many concerns as it sought to provide answers. At one point, the president said that “[t]his strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” This suggests that the Obama White House believes the U.S. anti-terrorist strategy in Yemen and Somalia — targeted air strikes in support of established governments working in concert with the U.S. military — could be seamlessly superimposed on the far different situations in Iraq and Syria. A surmise at best.

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And then there were the words of the address itself. Obama used the word “partners” seven times in the 15-minute speech. He spoke of enlisting “a broad coalition” without naming what countries — in the region and elsewhere — would be in that coalition. So, who’s signing on for this gig? Which states in the 22-member Arab League have already committed? What about partners in Europe? Was Obama speaking generally of confirmed coalition associates, or just players to be named later? That lack of specificity invites the suspicion that this coalition is still very much in the aborning stage. Details to follow.

The road to war is sometimes, even often, paved with unintended consequences. The prospect of U.S. action in Syria opens at least the possibility of a zero-sum-game dilemma, one Obama hasn’t addressed (at least not yet): How is it possible, in real-world terms, to “degrade” ISIS in Syria without enhancing the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus?

“We do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad's rule," a senior administration official told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. “These are Sunni majority areas in the eastern part of the country. We frankly believe that if ISIL degraded in these areas, the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition whom we work with.”

Perhaps. A lot depends on the integrity of those opposition forces, and their fighting capability as fortified, or not, by U.S. financial aid, which depends on Congress’ willingness to open the national wallet. Details to follow.

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ONE OF the more pressing matters — the introduction of more U.S. military personnel being sent to Iraq — was addressed by someone in a position to know. Speaking Wednesday night on MSNBC, in what amounted to a powerful State of the Veterans Address, Paul Rieckhoff, president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lamented what he called “a lack of clarity” in the president’s address.

Rieckhoff, an Iraq war vet, took issue with Obama’s assurance that the 475 more forces to be introduced in Iraq would be strictly non-combatants. “It’s combat,” he said. “if you’re on the ground right now, if it’s your husband or wife or son or daughter that’s headed over there with those 475 people, it’s combat. If they’re killed in action, it will be just like combat for them, and for our nation.”

Then, taking the long view, Rieckhoff movingly spoke of the nation’s sadly unfinished business. “We haven’t taken care of the folks who went to Iraq the first time,” he said. “We’re coming off a summer of absolute scandal at the [Veterans Administration]. And today is actually Suicide Prevention Awareness Day, as we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide.”

“It’s been 13 years of war, with the same folks going over and over and over again, and it does feel endless,” he said. “It feels like the rest of the country is at the mall and we are at war. At some point, the country’s got to address this disconnect.”

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Clearly, there’s a lot to be decided on how this country proceeds with its latest war footing vis-à-vis ISIS; the president’s address last night filled in some of the blanks, while at almost the same time left brand new blanks to contend with. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, also on MSNBC, grasped this in his reaction to Obama’s speech: “I view this much more as an opening statement than a closing argument.”

President Obama, a man known for deeply deliberating his every move, was consistent with past practice last night, and thinking before acting trumps acting without thinking every time. The address reflects the president’s reluctance to repeat a history we’d all like to forget. It also indicates the box he’s in, and in some ways the box he’s put himself in.

The speech was forthright and panoramic, but it was also something of a view through the looking glass, darkly. The American boots on the ground in Iraq — the ones Obama said he’s dead set against — are about to hit the ground there, and almost certainly somewhere else. Forgetting the past, or trying to mitigate it on behalf of the future, dooms one to repeat it. Paul Reickhoff can testify to that.

President Obama can add one more title to his résumé: Poker player in chief. On Wednesday night he made an address that indicates he’s got cards he ain’t showing. All well and good — maybe. But it’s one thing to hide your cards from potential adversaries. It’s something else entirely to hide them from the people of the United States.

Image credits: Obama: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. ISIS fighters: via The Guardian (UK).

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