One day, it’s a war. The next day, it’s not a war. Today, ISIS is a threat unlike any we have ever faced. Tomorrow, they are just another terrorist group, and one which is not even so distinct from al-Qaeda that confronting them would require the public’s consent in the form of a vote in Congress.
Obama’s strategic approach to combating the Islamic State is a moving target. The White House’s public pronouncements regarding the danger ISIS poses to the West are so fluid that it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the administration does not really have a strategy (as Obama confessed in late August to the country’s chagrin).
“If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counter-terrorism operation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week.
“The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates,” White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest said the following day.
As Time‘s Zeke Miller observed, however, statements from the administration over the weekend suggest that this “war” will look a lot less like a war and more like a “counter-terrorism operation.”
Obama first embraced the “degrade and destroy” formulation in a convoluted press conference in Estonia a day after ISIS released a video of the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. But the operative lines were his admission that the group could never truly be eradicated. “As we’ve seen with al-Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities,” Obama said. “You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.”
There will be no total victory in this war against ISIS, the administration suggests. The best the United States can hope for is to contain this threat to civilization in its strongholds and essentially concede the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Americans are not inspired.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg poll taken last week following Obama’s Wednesday night address to the nation revealed that the public has little faith in Obama to carry out the operations against ISIS which they support.
“The poll – conducted before the latest execution emerged – showed that a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have ‘very little’ or ‘just some’ confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved,” an NBC News report read. “Just 28 percent said they had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’ of confidence. Still, 62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday shows the administration has bigger problems than the public simply not trusting that Obama can serve as a wartime leader. The survey suggests that Obama’s strategy as he has defined it (albeit, through surrogates offering unattributed quotes to outlets like The New York Times) is also in doubt.
Reuters found that 64 percent of the public backs military action against ISIS. When asked, however, if they support a campaign limited to airpower which might last for three years or more, support falls dramatically to 53 percent. “Twenty-eight percent were against a long air campaign and 19 percent said they did not know,” Reuters revealed.
And this is before any sorties have been flown over Syria. Wars rarely grow more popular over time.
Who can blame the public for their apprehension? This administration has not projected resolve. If anything, they have conveyed reluctance and weariness. However woefully we reengage in the region, that reengagement aimed at confronting this unprecedented threat will require a level of commitment that this White House has made clear it lacks.
This will be a long war, and Obama has telegraphed that he has no intention of prosecuting it in an effective fashion. The president will bequeath to his successor the problem of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. For an administration which continues to define itself first and foremost as contrasting with President George W. Bush, the absurdity of this condition is rich.