Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Obama phones it in

In press conferences on Aug. 28, Sept. 3 and Sept. 5, and in a Meet the Press interview on Sept. 7, Obama provided considerable detail about the way he plans to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. Key themes, cumulatively elaborated over the four sessions, were that 1) The U.S. would not act precipitously in Syria; 2) Obama would not "Americanize" struggle -- U.S. military support would be calibrated to Sunni political action; and 3) the effort would build methodically and take considerable time.

Earlier today I traced these themes through all four of these quite recent Q&As because I assumed that they would serve as prelude to tonight's speech, which would distill them and continue to bring them into sharper focus. But the speech didn't do that. It was the comic book version -- the barest outline. It did not grapple with how the U.S. can build capacity to fight ISIS and foster the beginnings of viable government in Syria, an effort that Obama previously more or less rejected as futile -- and which he did address at least partially on 9/5 and 9/7, suggesting that the difference is greater motive and pressure on nearby Sunni nations to act in concert. He didn't provide any detail as to what degree of Congressional buy-in he considers necessary or unnecessary.  He held up U.S. efforts against al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as models, rather than his fight against core al Qaeda, seemingly to minimize the threat, though ISIS arguably has more capacity now than bin Laden's group ever did.

And in claiming authority to take unspecified military action in Syria -- denying the need for authorization by Congress, offering no account of the difficulties or dangers or likely duration -- Obama left a large chasm between his own account of the threat ISIS potentially poses to the U.S. and the authority he claimed to counter that threat.

First, early, this honest and not particularly inflated account of the threat:
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists -- Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.

So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks. 
Then, later, this claim of blanket authority to attack those who "threaten our country":
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. 
Other than the execution of Foley and Sotloff,  ISIS's direct threat to the U.S. is thus far hypothetical. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be countered. But does that threat justify unlimited executive action without express authorization by Congress? Obama glided right over that basic constitutional question.

In short, the speech raised a lot more questions than it addressed -- or than Obama has addressed elsewhere. It provided a thin sketch of a strategy and justification. Given broad popular support for action against ISIS, perhaps Obama calculated that less is more. But as a means of educating and preparing the nation, it was a cursory effort -- an "I got this" from a president currently enjoying little public confidence. 

Related:
No, Obama is not plunging neck deep in the Big Muddy
Why is arming a "moderate" Syrian opposition no longer "a fantasy"?
Contain, degrade, destroy ISIS? It's a timeline
"We don't have a strategy yet" is a strategy

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