Much is being made of the big turnaround for President Obama, from being a man firmly identified with pulling out of wars to a man launching a new one.
And he did, of course, announce a significant escalation of the U.S. military response to the Islamic State.
But if you parse his Wednesday night speech carefully, he also came about as close to saying “calm down” as was politically palatable, given the hysteria and hyperbole attending the matter here in Washington.
First, he established the context:
We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.
Quite philosophical, really.
And as for the Islamic State in particular, yes it’s “one of those groups” and yes it’s done some horrible things, but — in stark contrast to the sometimes nutty talk on TV — Obama made it clear that it’s hardly an imminent danger to America:
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.
The theme of his message was, ultimately, a calming one:
I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve.
Jonathan Shainin, an editor at the Guardian, translated Obama’s speech this way:
One could argue that in the speech, Obama was trying to make that something he had to do as un-stupid as the fevered, blood-lusting political elites would let him get away with.
This was not going to be a huge deal, he indicated. He called it an “effort,” not a war, and stressed that “this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” There was no talk of shock and awe; what Obama had in mind was a “counterterrorism campaign” that “will be waged through a steady, relentless effort.”
And Obama’s lack of any specificity regarding the scale of the effort, the timing, goals for partner participation, or any kind of metrics for success was either cover for him not really having a viable plan — or a brilliant rhetorical strategy to keep open the option of ratcheting everything back once the hysteria passes. Or both.
University of Michigan professor and Middle East blogger Juan Cole saw Obama’s posture as fundamentally defensive, particularly Obama’s assertion that his strategy agains the Islamic State “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Invoking Yemen and Somalia is a signal of minimalism in every way. On MSNBC, veteran, experienced and brilliant correspondent Richard Engel took apart this analogy. He pointed out that Yemen and Somalia are holding actions but that in Iraq the US and its allies would have to take territory.
But what if Obama is talking big but carrying a soft stick? What if he really does mean he has a Yemen-like situation in mind?…
What if Obama is a sharper reader of the Middle East than his critics give him credit for? He knows ISIL is likely not going away, just as, after 13 years, the Taliban have not. US military action may even prolong the lifetime of these groups…
Don’t listen to his expansive four-stage program or his retooled, stage-managed John Wayne rhetoric. Look at his metaphors. He is telling those who have ears to hear that he is pulling a Yemen in Iraq and Syria. He knows very well what that implies.
Obama was also specific in describing who ISIS currently threatened: people in the Middle East, not Americans. He only granted that ISIS might become a threat to the United States “if left unchecked.”
That assessment puts Obama at odds with his critics. It also puts him at odds with his own advisers. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called ISIS an“imminent threat to every interest we have,” while Secretary of State John Kerry said it “poses a severe threat.” But Obama’s assessment does reflect the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community.
Lindsay’s conclusion? That for Obama, “laying out a detailed plan that would pass muster with experts wasn’t his primary purpose. Reassuring a public worried about the ISIS threat, and his response to it, was.”
It is difficult to hear our President gently remind us, “We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world.” It challenges ideas of American power that are part of our collective psyche. Yet too many of our interventions in the Middle East have been aimed largely at fixing the messes left by our previous interventions. Obama signaled that he wants to pull the United States out of that cycle.
Here’s an internal inconsistencies in Obama’s plan noted by Middle East political analyst Michael Koplow:
I suspect that more of those contradictions will emerge over time. Obama has made many elements of Bushism the new normal. But he’s been pretty consistent about not getting the country mired in another land war, if he can help it.
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