The Case For War: Known Unknowns

Frum points to one big question the president didn’t address in last night’s speech:

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

But Daniel DePetris can think of a few more:

President Obama announced that the United States will be getting far more involved in Syria’s civil war—accelerating the U.S. train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting on two fronts (against ISIL and Bashar al-Assad) and whose capabilities pale in comparison to the Islamic State.  If Congress agrees to the president’s request, $500 million will be available for the Defense Department as seed-money to supplement the smaller training program that the Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly been running for over a year.

Yet the question must be asked: is it too late for U.S. assistance to make a difference?

The Free Syrian Army is perhaps at its most fragile point since Syria’s civil war began, and the moderates have been begging for heavy U.S. military equipment for years now.  Will $500 million be enough money, and if not, is the president willing to double down on his strategy and expend more taxpayer funds to improve its chances of success?

Byron York lists ways things could go wrong:

[W]hat if the Iraqi government turns out to be not as inclusive as the president hopes, at the same time that the U.S. military is deeply involved in the fight against the Islamic State? “One of [the dangers] is that the Iraqi government fails to come together in any meaningful way,” Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House official, said in an email exchange. “It may be that the government comes together but the country does not. That is, the Shia-Sunni split is impossible to repair, at least at this moment. It may be that a new government is formed but the leader himself is weak, or too sectarian, or too incompetent to wage an effective war against ISIS. It may be that the president increases our commitment in Iraq, but (unlike George W. Bush with the surge) not enough. The danger is that having re-engaged in Iraq, we don’t succeed.” The bottom line is that — by the president’s own reasoning — if a genuinely inclusive government fails to materialize, the U.S. mission, no matter how far-reaching, will fail.

Fred Kaplan is relatively supportive of Obama’s approach but shares that concern:

Obama made very clear that this battle requires active participation by the Saudis, Turks, and Europeans. But the roles and missions haven’t yet been outlined; the commitments aren’t quite carved in concrete. The plan has a chance of succeeding in Iraq because the new government, formed by Haider al-Abadi, seems inclusive, embraced by Sunnis and Shiites, for the moment—but it could fall apart with the bombing of a single mosque or a marketplace, and then what? Will it look like the Americans are advising and bombing on behalf of a Shiite regime? Will the other Sunni nations back away, fearing the association?

Tomasky tries to strike an optimistic note:

There are a thousand ways it can go wrong. But what if it goes right? And how about—here’s a crazy thought—we all hope that it does? And not for Obama’s sake: This gambit will certainly—certainly—define his foreign-policy legacy, but it’s not for that reason that we should hope it all works. It’s for the sake of Iraqis and Syrians, and ultimately, for us. Obama didn’t communicate every aspect of this fight effectively in the speech, which was too short and too vague. But the goals are the right ones. It’s a strategy, and he didn’t wear a tan suit.

In Cassidy’s view, the address signified Obama relinquishing his foreign-policy realism:

President Obama, long a reluctant warrior, has committed the United States to a risky and open-ended military campaign, the ultimate consequences of which are difficult to predict. Confronted with popular outrage at the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and political opponents keen to exploit any hint of weakness or indecision, the realist has relented. … In pledging to “ultimately destroy” ISIS, he adopted the maximalist language of John McCain and Dick Cheney. Once a President issues pledges of this sort, he has an enormous incentive to try to follow through on them, even if that involves further military escalation. The President, who only last year, at West Point, talked about winding down the “war on terrorism,” has come a long way in a short time.

John Dickerson wonders what that means in terms of the broader debate over American power and foreign policy:

The president didn’t just start a new military phase of the war on terrorism; he started a new round in the foreign policy conversation. He was brought to office by a war-weary nation. Now the polls suggest the nation is tired of him. For the moment that means the country is looking for a more assertive foreign policy. Whether that is a permanent new condition depends on future violence and success. But at the moment the incentive is for most politicians to make declarations of strength to distinguish themselves from the unpopular incumbent. The presidential candidates in 2016 will be particularly emboldened, since they traditionally run as an antidote to the perceived deficiencies of the current occupant. That’s certainly the way Sen. Barack Obama won office. If his overcorrection was born in his simplistic response to the deficiencies of his predecessor, then judging by the way this current foreign policy debate is going so far, it likely contains the seeds of the next overcorrection.

Michael Scherer thought Obama’s tone of “I can handle this” was well-chosen:

Chances are good the U.S. will win the military fight, and the spooks seem optimistic at the moment about preventing another homeland attack in retribution. But there will also be a cost. Another goal of his second term was to wind down the eternal conflict his predecessor called the “war on terror.” Now that won’t happen anytime soon. The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which Obama described as neither Islamic nor a state, will be a long one. As with past painful conflicts, there is no end date, and no clear metric on which to declare victory. He said he will “degrade and ultimately destroy” the threat. But the destroy part could very well come years after he leaves office.

Walter Russell Mead accuses the president of revealing his strategy to the enemy:

As it happens, we agree with the President that American ground troops aren’t the answer to our ISIS problems, and if by some ghastly mischance we ended up in the Oval Office we would be no more eager to send ground forces into this war than he is. But we wouldn’t want our enemies to know that—and we would also be aware that war is, above all other things, unpredictable. You take that first step and you just don’t know what comes next. If things don’t go as planned, the President could find himself in a position where all those “no ground troops” pledges could haunt him; certainly many of his critics will begin to rake him over the coals about the number of advisers and others that he must now inevitably send into harm’s way.

It’s a sign of the President’s tone deafness (and also substance deafness) when it comes to the military that he just doesn’t seem to get this. Telling the enemy that you are going to be out of Afghanistan by date X, or that you won’t put more than Y thousand troops in the country, or that you won’t put any boots on the ground makes life much, much easier for the bad guys. Indeed, in most wars this is exactly the kind of information that the enemy is most eager to get—this is why there are spies.

And to Matt Duss, the speech reflected Obama’s overarching foreign policy principle that “American power is demonstrated not by acting impetuously and demanding that others fall in line, but by working to develop and strengthen international consensus on a range of issues, and then mobilizing that consensus behind cooperative action”:

This is clearly not going to satisfy those in Washington who believe that American leadership is best shown through the application of ordnance and deploying of troops. “By [the] end of [the] speech, POTUS powerfully embraces cause of ‘freedom’ but commits only another 475 troops to the cause,” tweeted the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff. Well, the Bush administration embraced the cause of freedom, and committed over 100,000 troops to the cause. And one of the reasons Obama was up there speaking last night is because we’re still cleaning up the mess. Speaking of Bush, I should mention that one thing that George W. Bush got right about the Middle East is that illegitimate, unaccountable, undemocratic regimes empower extremists.