President Obama’s prime-time ISIS address was most noteworthy not for what he said, but for what he left unsaid. Which was plenty.
As expected, Obama vowed to conduct “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” that will seek to “degrade” ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq; to beef up the Iraqi forces who are fighting ISIS on the ground, with beefed-up training from “475 American servicemembers”; to boost military aid to the Syrian rebels who are currently fighting President Bashar al-Assad, so that these rebels will presumably fight ISIS as well. And Obama said he’ll sync his efforts with “a broad coalition of partners.”
“So this is our strategy,” he pointedly said – which at least sounded better than his recent infelicitous remark, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” But, at least based on what he outlined last night, it appears that the strategy has more holes than Jarlsberg cheese.
Sigh. Three years ago, Obama declared that “the tide of war is receding.” But in this era, and especially in the Middle East, that tide recedes and surges, endlessly so. Obama’s challenge is to craft a credible strategy out of all that murk. I question whether he has closed the sale.
For instance, he said his aim is to “ultimately” destroy ISIS, but nowhere in his address did he tell Americans how long this twilight war might be waged. “Ultimately” sounds like a synonym for “open-ended.” (Best guess the other day, from ex-Clinton national security adviser Samuel Berger: “This is going to be a very long-term proposition.”) Maybe it’s just as well that Obama stayed vague, because, to borrow a phrase from the immortal Donald Rumsfeld, there are too many “unknown unknowns.”
Obama said: “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.” Problem is, the Iraqis have long demonstrated that they can’t do much for themselves – except kill each other, in endless rounds of sectarian retribution. This is the country that Obama once hailed as “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” Now he’s sending more U.S. military advisers to train the country’s Shiite forces – who are widely viewed, by many of the Sunnis trapped in ISIS territory, as instruments of oppression.
The estimable Matt Cooper, posting today at Newsweek, nailed it nicely: “What Iraqi army? Um, we just spent countless dollars to train the Iraqi army for the past 10 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 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.”
And if the Iraqi forces fail to stop on ISIS on the ground in Iraq, what is Obama’s Plan B?
Obama also said: “Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition,” so that those rebels can also fight ISIS on the ground. ” Swell. Those are the same rebels that Obama has long derided as an ineffective fighting force – rightly so, because some of their weaponry has wound up in the hands of ISIS. Yet now, Obama says, “we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight” to ISIS. But if the Syrian rebels fail to stop ISIS on the ground in Syria, what is Obama’s plan B?
Obama also said: “America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat…America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.” He also said that Secretary of State John Kerry “will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners.” OK, what partners? Who’s in the coalition? Obama never said, probably because the “partners” don’t want to commit. Turkey is a possible partner, but it’s reluctant to act because ISIS is reportedly holding 49 Turkish citizens in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, another possible partner, is reluctant to act because it fears a backlash from ISIS-friendly extremists at home. So if this “broad coalition” fails to truly materialize, what is Obama’s Plan B?
Obama capped his rap by declaring that “our own safety, our own security, depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation” – but he’s actually averse to doing whatever it takes, because he repeatedly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. Few Americans want that. But by unleashing the dogs of war against an extremist army that holds square mileage the size of Maryland, Obama may well be forced to ponder what will happen if inept or feckless coalition partners fail to pull their weight.
Either that, or Plan B – whatever it is – could land in the lap of his lucky successor.
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