“This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
— President Obama, Sept. 10
President Obama, who’d been telegraphing his intention to throw this punch, did it the way he wanted to all along: attacking ISIS targets with the full participation of true partners in the campaign, the militaries of some of the major players in the Middle East, building a regional coalition of interested parties with a direct stake in the outcome.
Grace Hopper’s wry wisdom, geopolitically applied: For this president, it was better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.
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The president’s swift action on both the military and diplomatic fronts has also kept the political peace at home; Obama has received full-throated support from prominent Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, even as many on the political left have deep misgivings over the Obama strategy. The effect of all this on Democratic fortunes in November, is anyone’s guess.
For now, though, in preparations for a confrontation with what the president called “the cancer of violent extremism,” President Obama went looking for one coalition. He managed to come up with two. A lot’s riding on how solid and reliable those coalitions are.
Obama set the stage in powerful fashion. In a United Nations speech that pulled no punches there and underscored the punch he’d already thrown, Obama galvanized the General Assembly, making clear that this was a conflict in which there would be no convenience of sidelines.
But though the thrust of the speech was focused on the ISIS threat, Obama widened his rhetorical field of vision. With the impact of climate change, the presence of rampant expansionism (a clear shot at Putin’s adventures in Ukraine) and the mute, insidious terrorism of the Ebola virus rampaging across Africa ... well, the president said, there’s no sitting on the sidelines for any of that, either.
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“We come together at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope,” the president said.
“We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability," he said. "For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear.”
Transcript of President Obama’s speech before the UN General Assembly
But the speech’s first-among-equals was the Monday attack, in which the United States and “partner nation forces” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar hit targets in and around Raqqa, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
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FOR OBAMA, ISIS was the target of opportunity and necessity. “With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels — killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.”
“No God condones this terror,” Obama said during the 40-minute speech. “No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
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Then the president addressed that big concern both foreign and domestic: Who would talk the talk and walk the walk, which countries would put their militaries where their monarchies are?
This was apparently a formality. The five “partner nation forces” Obama named had already had military assistance from Belgium and the Netherlands. France, already bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, is reportedly weighing military strikes in Syria after an Algerian Islamist group beheaded a French citizen. “The question is on the table,” French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTF radio on Thursday.
Turkey is reportedly deciding how, not whether, to get involved. And British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Obama’s all-in appeal. “This is a fight you cannot opt out of,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday. “These people want to kill us. They have got us in their sights.”
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THE COALITION back in Washington, almost as unimaginable as the one called for at the UN, was strong in the early going, with Republicans refreshingly obeying the old rule that domestic politics stops at the water’s edge.
“When in times of war and of peace it is important that we come together as a nation,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria. I support the administration’s move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists. ISIS is not just a threat to the United States - it is a threat to all nations that value human life and decency.”
Rep. Peter King of New York, never one to mince words, tweeted: “All Americans must stand with President Obama in our war against ISIS — particularly tonight’s air strikes in Syria.” House Speaker John Boehner said “I support the airstrikes launched by the president.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reliable White House saddlethorn, lent his support.
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NBC News’ Bill Neely that his country had “no reservations whatsoever” about then-considered U.S. air strikes on ISIS targets.
Neely reports: “Mekdad called Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad ‘a natural ally’ for the U.S. in its battle against ISIS, saying in an exclusive interview that both countries are ‘fighting the same enemy’ and should be working together — not antagonizing each other.”
“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango ... We are ready to talk.
Mekdad did emphasize the need to coordinate the logistics of any strikes with the United States — so “there should be no mistakes,” he said. He even characterized it as “a must” for Obama to call Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That seeming demand felt more consultative than conditional, but no matter: Damascus was notified before the attack began.
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WHATEVER THE long-term prospects for the coalition of nations might be, the short-term prognosis has been good so far. William McCants, a former State Department adviser now with the Brookings Institute, told MSNBC that “before this, there was a lot of infighting, and the United States was not able to corral [Arab states] in a single direction. This strike is not just a physical manifestation that’s come together, but also quite symbolic, because they haven’t been able to achieve it in the prior two years.”
Some in the media have been more downbeat, or certainly more skeptical. They’ve made the automatic assumption that the disaster of attempting to train Iraqi recruits to protect Iraq from ISIS will be repeated in Syria — proposing to make a template of Iraq’s failure elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s not proven yet, and the Syrian people aren’t the Iraqis.
Other comments reflected the impatience typical of Americans in general. They want fortune-telling from the president, they seek guarantees, they amplify the impact of the worst-case scenario to the exclusion of anything else. It indicates looking at what’s just happened in Syria as an event, rather than the first steps of a process. They want predictability.
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Yours truly did the same thing. On Sept. 10, before Obama’s address to the nation on the ISIS crisis, I wrote that the United States had the means to control the tempo of any action in Syria: “[T]here’s something wrong if the world’s pre-eminent military force can’t be the timekeeper for an action of its own design.” That was wrong and, in the context of asymmetrical warfare, downright idiotic. With the U.S. as part of a coalition with a multitude of moving parts, fighting a fluid and well-capitalized force, the only thing to be expected is the unexpected. We found that out on Monday evening.
That was when the Pentagon and the president first formally broke the news about some of the welcome collateral damage in the attacks of ISIS. The Monday air strikes also took out members of the so-called Khorasan Group, a Syrian-based al-Qaeda militant offshoot that a Pentagon spokesman said, on Tuesday, was “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.”
Another terrorist clique heard from, and we might have expected nothing else. Al-Qaeda has already spawned subsidiaries, smaller groups bearing the parent group’s name. Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) are two examples.
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IT’S PERFECTLY reasonable to assume, then, that the legacy organization — Al-Qaeda®, if you will — would spin off other ancillary terrorist entities throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. From al-Shabaab in Somalia to the al-Nusrah Front in Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria, there are many groups that don’t bear the al-Qaeda brand but which still adhere to its terrorist principles.
Despite the necessity for this new iteration of an old conflict, that awakens a dire prospect: the coalition confronting not just ISIS and Khorasan in the future, but also any number of younger, hungrier terrorist outfits eager to make their bones, clamoring for their moment in the sun. A U.S.-led coalition playing terrorist whack-a-mole for a generation. A United States locked into a constant state of operational military readiness, an existence in which war — that most extreme human exercise — becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Jonathan Turley, the noted Georgetown constitutional law professor, said this on Tuesday. “We’ve come into this strange parallel universe where we live in perpetual war,” he said on MSNBC. “We have this uber-presidency, a dominant president — precisely what the Framers told us not to do — and the result is predictable.”
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The military campaign undertaken on Monday led some in the media to reach for phrasal comparisons to the “shock and awe” exercise in March 2003 that marked the start of the Iraq war. There’s one available.
Let’s call it shock and stealth: a war that begins with the sudden, almost flamboyant destruction we’ve become accustomed to ... followed by the absolute worst-case scenario: the stealth part, a life on tenterhooks as one terrorist group gives way to another and another; a period of months then years of war as our tolerable national toothache, something we can live with; a creeping, incremental experience happening so slowly, so imperceptibly as to defy feeling like war at all.
War without end, amen. No sidelines. No safe haven.
Image credits: Obama at United Nations: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press. Cameron: NBC News. Graham: CBS News. Al-Nusrah or Khorasan fighters: Agence France-Presse. ISIS presence map: CNN/Institute for the Study of War.