This is the central irony of Obama’s speech—and, it must be said, of his approach. The caution that he has shown, the time that he has taken to reach a decision, are admirable and wise; the course of action that he has set out is, despite its increasing scope, narrowly targeted. (This is no war on terror or on radical Islam.) Even so, as he acknowledged last night, “we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.” And there is, at this point, little to suggest that Iraqis can do much of anything for themselves but continue their slide into mutual mistrust and retributive violence. The security forces that Obama has now pledged to train, equip, and advise are seen, by many Sunnis, as a force of subjugation; Shiite militias, empowered by the previous Iraqi government and backed by Iran, have terrorized the population we intend to protect. The situation in Syria is less promising still. The anti-Assad rebels there have been unable to keep their weapons out of the hands of ISIS, which does raise the question: which side will be we arming?
In this sense, last night’s peroration—with its ode to American exceptionalism—was beside the point. Not because America isn’t terrific, which it is, or because our “technology companies and universities” aren’t “unmatched,” which they are, but because America’s success in this new and important mission will not depend, in the last analysis, on our values, our strength, or our can-do spirit. It will depend on partners who are at best unreliable and possibly incapable. If they falter, what becomes of the U.S. effort? That question was neither asked nor answered in the President’s speech, but there is always next year.