Quotes of the day

Barack Obama delivered a bewildering speech on Wednesday. The pledge to “destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; the deployment of U.S. troops to do just that; the flag-flanked, sober-sounding president addressing the American people behind a podium in prime-time—all appeared to amount to a declaration of war.

But Obama never used the word “war” to describe his decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS and provide military assistance to regional forces fighting the extremist group. When he employed the w-word, it was to clarify what this is not. It’s not “another ground war in Iraq.” It’s not Afghanistan. It’s a “counterterrorism campaign” to “take out ISIL wherever they exist.” Obama didn’t say how long the campaign would take, or how we’ll know when its mission is accomplished…

Thirteen years after his predecessor declared war on a concept—terror—Obama avoided explicitly declaring war on the very real adversary ISIS has become. All the same, U.S. soldiers are now going on the offensive again in the Middle East. What is the nature of their enemy? Is it peacetime or wartime? After Wednesday’s speech, it’s more difficult than ever to tell.

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Equally troubling, Obama began a speech announcing America’s return to war in Iraq by celebrating his withdrawal of combat troops from that country. Would he have us believe that the two events are unrelated?

If he believes this is a mere coincidence, he has little company. And it’s a change from last month, when he attempted to deflect blame for the chaos by claiming it hadn’t been his choice to remove troops from Iraq. Asked directly if he had “any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq,” Obama disclaimed responsibility for the outcome. “As if this was my decision,” he huffed…

It may be comforting for the president to see these things as distinct and unrelated to one another, to imagine that the threats emanating from Iraq and Syria are new and unique, to pretend that his decisions have made us safer. But it shouldn’t be comforting to the rest of us.

Ambivalence won’t win this war. And self-delusion could lose it.

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It’s being sold as a war to protect the United States homeland against a profound terrorist threat. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein recently said, “The threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated.” Her Republican colleague Jim Inhofe has claimed that ISIS is “rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city” and that as a result, “We’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.”

This time, the press needs to aggressively investigate whether that’s true. If it is, then the Obama administration should be considering ground troops, as General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, reportedly requested—domestic politics be damned. We sent them into Afghanistan, after all. And if the ISIS threat really is greater than the al-Qaeda threat was on September 10, as Inhofe suggests, then there’s a case for doing the same in Iraq and Syria today.

If, on the other hand, ISIS lacks the motivation and capacity for anything close to 9/11, then President Obama’s stated justification for even an air war looks weak.

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Since taking office, President Obama has relied increasingly on drone strikes to counter terrorist threats. A couple thousand dead bad guys later, the global terrorist threat has merely metamorphosed, and in many ways it appears to be as bad as ever. Why do we think a counter­terrorism approach that had achieved no strategic success so far will suddenly start working in Syria?

IS is far from invincible, but if we were truly serious about degrading or destroying IS in Syria, we’d need to cross John Kerry’s latest red-line and put some American boots on the ground. Not 100,000 boots — a fairly small number of American special operators working with the few remaining local unicorns might even do the trick — but boots nonetheless. That would be risky, of course; some of those Americans might get killed. But if IS is truly a threat to core U.S. interests, it’s a risk we should be willing to take.

The administration’s unwillingness to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria sends an all-too clear message both to Americans and to the rest of the world: Actually, destroying IS isn’t that important to us. Combatting IS is just important enough that we need to demonstrate that we’re “doing something” — but not quite important enough for us to bother to do it right.

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[Jihadis] heard Obama promise to reduce ISIL’s revenue “from oil and assets it has plundered” and to disrupt “the flow of external donations to the group.” They know, just as any well-informed person anywhere knows, that the US government has the capacity to do just that. But they also know what Obama would have to do to accomplish it – namely institute some kind of secondary sanctions on countries (and there are a lot of them) that traffic in oil sold by ISIL – and that Obama does not have the slightest intention of upsetting these countries or the domestic US interests that deal with them…

Obama promised to limit “ISIL’s ability to extort local populations; stemming ISIL’s gains from kidnapping for ransom.” That would be serious. But the men of ISIL can discount the threat because executing it would take physically pushing ISIL rulers out with a substantial ground force. Obama made it clear that the U.S. will not supply such a force. (Good thing too, because a US ground invasion would likely repeat the disastrous Iraq occupation policy). The Kurds fight magnificently. But they have learned to do so exclusively for Kurdistan. The Iraqi army does not, and will not, exist. Iraq has plenty of ferocious Shia militias – death squads – eager to take the equivalent of Sunni scalps. But all know that Obama will do his best to shield ISIL from the Shia. The Saudis demand it…

Alas, our ruling class couples their illusions with whatever they find it convenient to do, and call it “strategy.” Thereby do they advertise their impotence.

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And beyond the strategy’s halfhearted substance is its author’s halfhearted tone. Obama’s reluctance and ambivalence are obvious. This is a man driven to give this speech by public opinion. It shifted radically with the televised beheading of two Americans. Every poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly want something to be done — and someone to lead the doing.

Hence Wednesday’s speech. Its origins were more political than strategic. Its purpose was to save the wreckage of a presidency at its lowest ebb. (If this were a parliamentary democracy, Obama would lose a vote of nonconfidence and be out of office.) Its point was to give the appearance of firmness and purpose, i.e., leadership…

Even the best war plans run into trouble. This one already suffers from a glaring mismatch of ends and means — and a grand coalition that is largely fictional. Difficulties are sure to come. How will the commander-in-chief, already reluctant and ambivalent, react to setbacks — the downing of the first American pilot or perhaps a mini-Tet Offensive in Baghdad’s Green Zone engulfing the U.S. Embassy?

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Obama’s decision to combat the Islamic State offers him a chance to reset U.S. leadership and his own presidency after growing doubt at home and abroad about what, if anything, he was willing to fight for. His innate cautiousness is now actually a reassurance that he’ll fight this war sensibly, partnering with allies in the region, in a way that doesn’t needlessly exacerbate the United States’ problems with the Muslim world.

Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser for President George W. Bush, is hardly a cheerleader for Obama. But he gave the president high marks for “a good speech” that explained the threat and what he was going to do about it. Hadley noted that Obama’s stance as a reluctant warrior will help him reassure foreigners and Americans alike that this isn’t a reckless, unilateral U.S. crusade.

“He will put together a coalition, and he will try to keep them out front,” Hadley said in an interview. “It will still be an American fight, but it will look less like one, and that’s actually a strength. People will be less worried that it’s a slippery slope if he’s in charge because he’s reluctant to be where he is.”

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The unsuccessful reluctant leader isn’t really motivated to perform the tasks assigned to him. The three essential features of political leadership, Max Weber wrote, are passion, responsibility and judgment. The unsuccessful reluctant leader is passionless. His actions are halfhearted. Look at President Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan at the same instant he announced their withdrawal date. That’s a reluctant leader undercutting himself. If Obama approaches this campaign that way then he will withdraw as soon as the Iraqi government stumbles, or the Iraqi Army fails to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the ground…

The reluctant leader can be skeptical. There’s a reason President Obama didn’t want to get involved in this conflict. Our power to manage history in the region is limited. But sometimes a reluctant leader can make wise decisions precisely because he’s aware of his limitations. If you’re going to begin a military campaign in an Arab country, you probably want a leader who’d rather not do it…

The reluctant leader can be dogged. Sometimes when you’re engaged in an unpleasant task, you just put your head down and trudge relentlessly forward. You don’t have to worry about coming down from prewar euphoria because you never felt good about this anyway…

Everybody is weighing in on the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama strategy. But the strategy will change. The crucial factor is the man. This is the sternest test of Obama’s leadership skills since the early crises of his presidency. If he sticks to this self-assigned duty, and pursues it doggedly, he can be a successful reluctant leader. Sometimes the hardest victories are against yourself.

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“The reliance on air power has all of the attraction of casual sex: It seems to offer gratification but with little commitment.”