Remember the brouhaha late last summer over Obama's rapidly evolving language with respect to the aim of military action against the Islamic State? Was the plan that we did not entirely have yet merely to contain the rapidly expanding monstrosity, or rather to "degrade and destroy" it? Over the course of a frenetic couple of weeks, the messaging settled on an implicit extended timeline, in which the administration vowed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" IS.
The qualifier "ultimately," I noted at the time, became Obama's linguistic tool of choice to bridge the chasm required to build or buy some kind of viable ally or basis for a political solution in Syria -- a process not yet begun. Remember "we don't have a strategy yet"? That was Obama's maladroit way of signaling that U.S. military action in Syria would be limited for want of a viable ally.
In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep on Dec. 29, in an almost throwaway subordinated clause, Obama rang a new variation on that formula with the same key qualifier:
And on the international front, you know, even as we're managing ISIL and trying to roll them back and ultimately defeat them......and the sentence moved on to Afghanistan. Thus was the problem rhetorically contained in a roundup sentence. But Inskeep, to his credit, didn't leave it there: he returned to the repressed at the very end of the interview. And there Obama bid at once to give the danger its due and, so to speak, contain it within the country's broader to-do list.
In fact, there was a sort of double nesting: Obama put the problem of IS in the context of putting America's role in the world in context. Or rather, a triple nesting: containing IS within a multilateralism that preserves U.S. resources for "nation building at home":
Inskeep: Just to wrap this up with this idea that you began with, of doing things that you want to do rather than ...There are so many conscious distinctions and definitions here. Notice the rhetorical double containment of Russia: monocrop economy, 'merely' nuclear military. Notice the assertion that long-term economic might depends on "broadly shared" prosperity. Note too the segue from 'spending a trillion dollars there won't work' to the need for domestic investment. Note the tack-back from "we've never been in the business of..' to "when we have..." Note a president who's not afraid to say "I'm hesitant..."
Inskeep: ... have to do, has your limited response to ISIS in Iraq and Syria been driven in part by a sense that this is a very dangerous threat, but not the biggest problem the United States faces in the world, and you do not want to be distracted from far bigger things going on elsewhere?
Obama: I think we can't underestimate the danger of ISIL. They are a terrorist network that, unlike al-Qaida, has not limited itself to the periodic attack but have aspirations to control large swaths of territory, that possess resources and effectively an army that pose great dangers to our allies and can destabilize entire regions that are very dangerous for us.
So, I don't want to downplay that threat. It is a real one; it's the reason why I've authorized, as part of a broader 60-nation coalition, an effort to fight back and to push them back and ultimately destroy them.
But it's not the only danger we have. America is probably as well-positioned for the future as we've been in a very long time.
We've created more jobs since I've been president than Japan, Europe and every other advanced nation combined. Our energy resources, both conventional and clean energy resources, put most other of our competitors to shame.
Demographically, we've got a young population, in part because of immigration. We've got the best universities in the world; we've got the best workers in the world. Our manufacturing base has come roaring back, led by the auto industry but not restricted by it. Our deficits I've cut by two-thirds.
And so, if you look out towards the future, America is in a great position and our military is more capable than any military in history. We don't really have a serious peer, at least on the conventional level, although obviously Russia is a significant nuclear power.
The question then becomes, all right, how do we play those cards well? Part of it is attending to immediate problems like ISIL; part of it is making sure that we are firm in upholding international norms as we have been in Ukraine; part of it is managing short-term crises that could turn into long-term disasters if we're not attentive, like Ebola. But ultimately, the thing that is most dangerous for the United States is us not tending to the very sources of our strength.
So, it is true that when it comes to ISIL, us devoting another trillion dollars after having been involved in big occupations of countries that didn't turn out all that well — I'm very hesitant to do that, because we need to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here in the United States; that is going to be a recipe for our long-term security and success. And what we've also learned is that if we do for others what they need to do for themselves — if we come in and send the Marines in to fight ISIL, and the Iraqis have no skin in the game, then it's not going to last.
When we look at an issue like Ukraine, we have to be firm with the Russians, but we've also got to make sure that we've got our own fiscal house in order; we got to make sure that we are doing what we need to do to build our manufacturing base, because ultimately, the big advantage we have with Russia is we've got a dynamic, vital economy, and they don't. They rely on oil; we rely on oil and iPads and movies and you name it.
And so, making sure that we are building on our strengths, most of all, our people; making sure that prosperity is broadly shared; making sure that people feel confident about the future here at home — that is going to be the test as to whether we're secure and prosperous over the long term.
America's never been in the business of colonizing other countries and grabbing their resources; we've never been in the business of bullying folks into doing things that we can't do for ourselves. Where we have done that, by the way, it's never worked out all that well. That's not our best tradition.
Our best tradition is when we just lead by example and when we are strong and secure and we're standing up for what we believe in. And we're in a great position to do that right now.
And my last two years, my intention is going to be to make sure that I build on the great work that we've done over the last six years, and I hope that I can bring the country together to do it.
Obama doesn't boil down to sound bytes, and doesn't always execute well. I suspect that his tendency to avoid conflict, whether with the Republicans or, say, Hamid Karzai, has often served both him and the nation ill. But the overall case he makes for the extent to which he's restored the country's economy and therefore its leverage abroad is powerful. as is his framework for conceiving America's place in the world.