It’s a measure of the impact of Barack Obama’s speech that much of the attention after the highly-anticipated war address focused on this exchange, hosted by Anderson Cooper on CNN, or rather refereed. Senator John McCain ripped recently-departed Obama press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly for mangling the facts surrounding the decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq in 2011. Carney kept calling this a difference of opinion, while McCain insisted that Carney simply didn’t have the facts on his side … and Cooper largely let the two duke it out:
Among McCain’s comments:
“I’m astounded that Mr. Carney should say that the Free Syrian Army is now stronger.”
“You just didn’t choose to know. I was there in Syria. We knew that – c’mon … your boss is the one that, when the entire national security team wanted to arm and train them, that he turned them down, Mr. Carney…”
“Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney. … The fact that they didn’t leave a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisers is the reason why we’re facing ISIS today.”
“You, in your role as a spokesperson, bragged about the fact that the last American combat troop had left Iraq. If we had left a residual force, the situation would not be what we have today.”
The exchange may have drawn attention away from what Obama said, but that’s also due to the somewhat unremarkable nature of Obama’s speech. As an address to prepare a nation for war, it fell short in many ways, including a sense that the President was committed to the enterprise. Even with his rhetoric about ISIS finally approaching the reality of the danger, National Journal’s George Condon was struck by the diffident and detached tone taken by Obama in the speech:
Never has a declaration of war been so cautious. Never has an American president spent so much time talking about what the declaration doesn’t mean and left so many questions about what it does mean.
But what President Obama put forth in his nationally televised address Wednesday night still was a declaration of war—even if he did prefer to call it a “counterterrorism campaign.” What made it more remarkable was that it was delivered by a president who ran for office on an antiwar platform and hoped his legacy would be leaving the nation at peace.
This is the president who, 19 months ago in a speech at the National Defense University, stated that the war on terrorism, “like all wars, must end”; who 33 weeks ago in his State of the Union address said, “America must move off a permanent war footing”; and who 14 days ago told reporters that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for combating the Islamist terrorist group, ISIS, that has seized broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Newsweek’s Matt Cooper found the speech depressing — and still not engaged with reality. Cooper lamented the ways in which he believed Obama sounded like George W. Bush, only without Bush’s cognition on geopolitical reality. For instance, in a strange claim that had almost everyone scratching their heads, Obama claimed that Somalia and Yemen were successes:
Somalia and Yemen are successes? Good lord. At least when Bill Clinton famously pointed to Bangladesh as an economic model for micro businesses, he had a point, albeit one that seemed jaw-dropping at the time. It’s not that anyone expects Somalia and Yemen to be Swiss-like after hearing from our drones and special forces. But Somalia is utterly chaotic and Yemen is still terrorist rich. We haven’t destroyed any groups there, only clipped them at times which barely counts as degrading their organizations.
Obama pledged to train the Iraqi Army to fight ISIS, which sounded awfully familiar:
Um, we just spent countless dollars to train the Iraqi army for the past ten years. And what did it get us? A force that collapsed when ISIS rolled across Iraq. Maybe, as Obama said, there will be a new inclusive government in Iraq and that will make for a stronger national army. But what makes us think that we can get this worthless army can now be turned into the essential fighting force that Obama touted? Could that possibly be done with a few hundred more troops/advisors? Please.
In the end, the most interesting part of the evening — and maybe the most realistic — was the McCain vs Carney grudge match on CNN. Yes, Obama finally told Americans the truth about the danger of ISIS, and also finally took a leadership role in dealing with it with his pledge to lead a “broad coalition,” of which more later. Overall, though, there was little to raise hope of any more competence in doing so. The latter part of the speech dissolved into a strange campaign speech about how great American universities are, energy independence, and the laughable claim that the last five years of stagnation, in which the economy has barely kept up with population growth, represents “the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.”
If Obama can’t focus on the war for 14 minutes without dissolving back into his fantasy world, then this speech doesn’t indicate any kind of serious inflection point for his presidency.