James Joyner didn’t hear anything terribly new in Obama’s address tonight:
The first thing I’d note is how much it sounded like any number of foreign policy speeches given by his predecessor. He declared again and again that, “As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people” and proudly enumerated all the was that “we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country.” He noted that, “We took out Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia.” …
The second observation is that it’s still not clear exactly what Obama’s strategy is. His stated political objective is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” but he offered no plan that could plausibly do more than the former.
Andrew Sprung wasn’t impressed either:
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.
Zack Beauchamp picks up on a cruel irony:
Bush argued that the United States needed to launch wars against regimes that might sponsor terrorist groups before they were imminent threats to the US. Obama is applying a version of that preventative war logic to ISIS.
Now, the comparison isn’t exact. There’s a compelling case that ISIS, an utterly brutal jihadi group that has already beheaded two Americans, will one day turn its eye towards the American homeland. It’s certainly more compelling than Bush’s case that Saddam might sponsor nuclear terrorism against the United States. What’s more, the military campaign Obama is proposing is extraordinarily more modest than Bush’s full-scale invasion of Iraq. But the irony here is unmistakable. Barack Obama, who won the presidency on the strength of his opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq, is now launching a new campaign in Iraq — on fairly similar reasons.
David Corn wonders what Obama will do when the war doesn’t go as planned:
Obama’s intentions are clear: he doesn’t want to return to full-scale US military involvement in Iraq. But now that he has committed the United States to renewed military action there, where’s the line? When US military intervention in Libya was debated in the White House, Obama, after careful deliberation, chose a calibrated course of action that included limited US military involvement as part of a multilateral campaign. That plan achieved its end: Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted. (The dust there, however, is far from settling.) Obama’s approach to ISIS is similar, but this problem is more vexing and the risks greater. His speech gave little indication of how he might confront the possible problems and hard choices that will likely come.
There’s an old cliché: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The same might be true for a case for war. Once a war is started, the narrative of that war, like the events themselves, can be hard to control.
Hayes Brown emphasizes that Obama’s “success stories” really don’t make much of a case for this type of counterterrorism strategy:
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” the excerpt reads. Except this is probably among the least encouraging thing that Obama could possibly say. Yemen and Somalia have been the target of hundreds of U.S. strikes, from not just armed drones, but also Special Forces raids and missiles launched from nearby ships. After nearly 13 years of using the authority granted to President George W. Bush to destroy al Qaeda in 2001, the United States is still trying to prevent the spread of terror in those countries, making the odds that the fight against ISIS will be a short one extremely low.
Jack Goldstone also focuses on those very bad examples:
I sure hope we get a DIFFERENT campaign than we had in Yemen and Somalia. Those countries are still total wrecks, half-overrun by terrorists and rebels after years of air attacks. The attack against ISIS needs to be more successful than our campaigns against the Houthis or al-Shabab; otherwise we will be fighting an endless war with little progress. In those countries the problem is precisely that we have not had reliable allies on the ground (except when Ethiopia fought with us in Somalia, and that did bring a major success). So we need to find or create them in Iraq and Syria, and fast.
Paul Scharre argues that the air force is not well prepared to execute the strategy Obama outlined, primarily due to a shortage of drones:
Countering terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS requires more than simply dropping bombs. The key enabler is intelligence, much of which comes from unmanned aircraft, or “drones.” Contrary to the popular attention paid to “drone strikes,” the most valuable service that drones provide isn’t the ability to drop bombs—many manned aircraft can do that—but rather the ability to loiter overhead for 16-20 hours at a time, watching terrorists and gathering information. Several drones working together can provide 24/7 coverage, an unblinking eye watching a terrorist’s every move, and most importantly, every person he meets with, allowing intelligence analysts to unravel a network and find key leaders.
The Air Force refers to these 24/7 coverage areas as “orbits,” and in its most recent budget, it slashed them. In its Fiscal Year 2015 budget submission, the Department of Defense reduced the number of 24/7 Air Force Predator and Reaper orbits by 15 percent, from 65 to 55. This would make sense if there was too much capacity in the force or if the reduction of troops from Afghanistan meant that fewer surveillance orbits were needed. The reality is that demand for unmanned aircraft for high-priority missions like counterterrorism far exceeds supply.
Earlier today, Chris Woods reminded us of the limits of air power:
[T]here’s scant proof that airpower-only campaigns actually work. Much of Libya is now overrun by militant Islamists, while Yemen is actually less stable today after five years of secret U.S. drone strikes. Ground troops will eventually be needed to hold territory once IS is forced out of the areas of Syria and Iraq it now controls. Washington and its Western allies not only have little appetite for another ground war, they don’t have enough credibility to conduct one following the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Presumably that’s why Obama has promoted the idea of a regional solution to the problem. Yet with the Syrian and Iraqi armies barely capable of stepping up, it’s not clear who would fill that void.
And Frum practically begged Obama to not go back into Iraq:
Those of us associated with the Bush administration bear the burden of having launched a war on false premises that then yielded disappointing results. It’s a heavy responsibility, and one most of us have struggled with in our various ways. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. But it’s one thing to fail to achieve your aims. It’s another to start a war with no discernible aims at all. It’s not crass, not narrow, not unethical for the president of the United States to test any proposed foreign policy—and most especially the use of armed force—against the criterion: “How will this benefit my nation?” That test is not a narrow one. The protection of allies is an important U.S. interest. The honoring of international commitments is an important U.S. interest. And it could even be argued that humanitarian action can be justified when it will save many lives, at low cost in American blood and treasure, without creating even worse consequences inadvertently. This new campaign against ISIS does not even pretend to meet that test. It’s a reaction: an emotional reaction, without purpose, without strategy, and without any plausible—or even articulated—definition of success.
But Freddie deBoer doubted that things would ever change:
I can envision no plausible scenario in which this country stops its endless projection of military force. Not in my lifetime. I suppose I hope only that people in the media will someday be honest and say: we are bent on war, and our media is bent on war, and there is no such thing as an anti-war voice in our politics or media, and we will go to war again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. We might “win,” this time. We will certainly destroy ISIS if we set our minds to it. And we will leave behind another failed state, whether after a year or ten, and then that failed state will do what failed states do, and we will go back again. But every time a little weaker, a little more vulnerable, until someday at last, the next war is the one that leads to our own destruction.
(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House on September 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)