[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was sad to watch, but, I guess, inevitable. In delivering a strong and decisive speech on how to deal with the ISIS threat, Barack Obama resoundingly answered his critics — by sounding just like them.
As Philip Gourevitch points out in the New Yorker, every American president over the last 25 years — Bush the Elder, Clinton, Bush II, and now Obama — has eventually gone on TV to announce his decision to bomb Iraq.
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe Obama will be the last one. We are not just back at war in Iraq. We are, Obama concedes, back in the long war.
The key line in Obama’s speech came right at the beginning when he upped the stakes on ISIS, saying the goal was to “degrade” and “ultimately destroy” the terrorist group known variously as the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. Before the speech, Obama had never gone beyond “degrade,” and for good reason.[pullquote]Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said we’re ‘in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.’ He didn’t add: ‘Until the next time right around the corner that we’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation, or the time after that.'[/pullquote]
Despite large and powerful American armies put to the task over many years, we have not destroyed al-Qaeda and we have not destroyed the Taliban. And now, Obama is vowing to destroy ISIS by using only American air power to complement what everyone agrees are unreliable and, in the case of Syria, basically unknown allies on the ground.
Obama didn’t say how long it would take, only that it would take a while. He didn’t say how we’d know the mission was, uh, accomplished. And he didn’t say why, if we left again, that another ISIS or al-Qaeda in Iraq or some other disaffected group wouldn’t simply emerge in its place, starting the cycle over again.
In any case, you may recall how well the bombs-only, in-support-of-little-known-allies policy worked in Libya. I know Obama does. It wasn’t long ago that he was saying how much he regretted the now-disaster that is Libya. That is one lesson of Iraq after all: bombing is always the easy part.
This is not news to Obama. He’s the president who gets nuance, who understands complexity, who knows the shadings of Muslim rivalries, who has resisted the notion of permanent war in the world after 9/11, who resisted getting involved in the Syrian civil war even in the face of all the suffering. And yet, here he is and here we are.
It’s no secret how we got to this point. The horrific video deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were intended to force our hand, and, to our horror, they worked. They worked so well, in fact, that some of our leaders weren’t content to talk only of barbarism. Suddenly, ISIS must be uniquely dangerous. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called ISIS “the most vicious, well-funded and militant terrorist organization we have ever seen.” Sen. James Inhofe said it was developing a “method of blowing up a major American city,” putting us “in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.”
It’s the WMD-plus argument. Daniel Benjamin, once a top counterterrorism coordinator in the Obama administration, told the New York Times that the branding of ISIS had devolved into a “farce” of “lurid” tales and “uncorroborated” threats. And yet in Obama’s speech, even when saying that there was no indication that ISIS currently threatens the United States, he said it was possible that it could some day.
There are sound reasons why Obama wanted out of Iraq and resisted going into Syria. He once called the idea of finding secular moderate rebels to arm in Syria a “fantasy.” Now for Obama’s strategy to work, the fantasy has to come true, and even if the fantasy team were to push ISIS out of Syria, we’d have to hope that Bashar al-Assad — when he isn’t busy gassing his own people — doesn’t just walk in and take its place.
In Iraq, we have to hope that the newly installed government, still led by a Shia Islamist party, would stop repressing Sunnis and actually follow through with giving them a real voice in governing. In fact, that’s the critical piece of the entire arrangement — counting on a government that has been in sort-of power for a week to resolve the whole Shia-Sunni rivalry issue, so that Sunnis won’t keep feeding ISIS with fighters. And where does Iran figure into all this? Are we doing Iran’s work here or our own or both?
And let’s say the the new government does become inclusive — it’s possible, I guess — does that mean the newly trained Iraqi army, last seen in full retreat from ISIS, changes, too? Wasn’t the other lesson of Iraq that there was no military solution? And if ISIS is as dangerous as we’re told, wouldn’t we have to do the fighting ourselves — yes, with American boots on the ground — if the Iraqis couldn’t hack it?
The risks are enormous, just as they were back in 2003 when young Obama was complaining of “dumb” wars. And the likely rewards? After all these years, no one has found them.