Politics & Policy

The Halfhearted War

President Obama concludes his remarks, September 10, 2014. (Pool Image)
The president’s speech had everything a hawk could want — except a strategy.

Only President Barack Obama would feel compelled to mention the success of the American auto industry in a speech rallying the nation for a long war of annihilation against a vile terror group.

Through the years, even when he’s been his most stalwart-sounding in national-security speeches, you can’t shake the sense that he’d much rather be talking up tax credits for plug-in electric cars, or extolling Obamacare’s mandate for employer coverage of contraception.

The last thing he wanted to do, nearly six years into his presidency, is have to give a primetime address about his new war in Iraq.

Yet he did it and sounded credible, indeed forceful and determined. He condemned the viciousness of the Islamic State. He put himself clearly on record for seeking its destruction. He boasted of his own lethality to our enemies. He extolled American leadership (and talked up the auto companies).

The speech had everything a hawk against the Islamic State would want — except an unmistakable strategy to destroy the Islamic State.

The president compared the Iraq effort to the “counterterrorism” campaigns in Somalia and Yemen, countries where we target individual terrorists from the air and occasionally with special forces amid chaos on the ground. If we want to kill some members of the Islamic State over a period of years while it remains a threat, this is an entirely appropriate model.

The Somalia/Yemen approach is a way, to borrow the president’s formulation from just a week ago, to manage the Islamic State threat rather than to destroy it.

The Islamic State has occupied an enormous amount of territory in Iraq and Syria, including major population centers. That is why it declared a caliphate and why it has unprecedented resources. To defeat it, this territory must be taken back, and it is unlikely to happen exclusively from the air — especially in the cities.

It will take ground forces. We hope to work with proxy forces, but they are motley groups that will almost certainly need vetting and advising by special operators working closely with them on the ground. But the president ruled out American ground forces.

The cynical interpretation is that he is hoping to do enough against the Islamic State to satisfy domestic political opinion and keep the terror group at bay until he can hand off an incomplete campaign to his successor, who will be left with the difficult choice of whether to truly defeat the Islamic State.

Certainly, the president gives no sign of having absorbed the full magnitude of his policy failures in Iraq and Syria to this point. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen points out that President George W. Bush, in ordering the surge in Iraq, acknowledged his prior strategy had failed. This established that he had a new understanding of the challenge in the country and underlined his commitment to acting on it. Obama has made no similar acknowledgment, and probably never will.

To be sure, we are a long way from January, when the president explained away the Islamic State’s capture of Fallujah as practically the normal course of things in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. It is good that he says he wants to destroy the Islamic State, good that he has expressed a willingness to extend the bombing campaign to Syria, good that he helped ease the disastrous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from power, and good that he has put together a small coalition of the willing.

Perhaps the execution of what he described in his speech will be very robust and he will find a way to get out of his prohibition on boots on the ground, if it becomes obvious that it is an obstacle to success.

But he has a history of all but walking away from his military commitments. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan, then did all he could never to speak of it again, and now risks creating a new Iraq there with another complete pullout in a few years.

No matter how tough he sounds, his heart is someplace else.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 King Features Syndicate

 

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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