Yesterday was September 10, 2014, and to mark the occasion, the president of the United States decided to give a speech that had a September 10, 2001 mindset about it. I suppose that I could take the time to fisk it (hey, remember fisking?), but I’m rather lazy this evening, and frankly, what is the point? If you want to see my realtime reaction, check my Twitter feed (start with this tweet, and end with this one). Basically, my concerns boil down to the following:
- There is no definition of “victory.”
- There is no way on this or any other planet that we are going to achieve a decisive victory over ISIL via airpower alone.
- It is utterly foolish to announce to the enemy that he doesn’t have to worry about us putting boots on the ground.
- We are in this war because we pulled out of Iraq too soon, a pullout we pretended constituted a victory.
Oh, and by the way, I guess this means that Barack Obama is officially a neoconservative now. There is nothing about his speech that would sound strange coming out of the mouths of people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz or anyone else commonly known as a neoconservative.1 Is this what Obama voters expected when they cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012? I suspect not, so if Obama voters aren’t outraged by recent developments, they aren’t paying attention. Their man wasn’t supposed to turn into George W. Bush, after all. Please, oh please, oh please let us never again claim that this administration is filled with realists, or that this president has a healthy appreciation for the virtues of realpolitik.
Qua speech, Barack Obama’s address Wednesday on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was surprisingly terrible: a disorganized mess, insincere and unconvincing. To appreciate just how bad and bizarre it was, compare the president’s speech announcing a new air campaign in Iraq and Syria to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 statement on his decision to intervene in Lebanon with 14,000—14,000!—troops. The statement contains no chest-thumping about America’s leadership in science and medicine. No pivot to the auto industry and medical research. Eisenhower simply explained what had been done, and why.
There was no such declarative clarity in Obama’s speech last night. Has any past president announced military action with such ambivalence and unease? “Mr. President,” one imagines a reporter shouting, “how sure are you that you’re doing the right thing?” “On a scale of 1 to 10?” Obama replies. “About a 6.”
The real fault in the address, however, was not its delivery or its writing, but rather its content. The president spoke to the nation without answering the most important questions that such a speech raises.
[. . .]
In plain English: We don’t really have a plan. We don’t have a definition of success. We see some evildoers and we’re going to whack them. They deserve it, don’t they?
And sure, ISIS does deserve it. The group is a nasty collection of slavers, rapists, thieves, throat-slitters, and all-around psychopaths. The trouble is: so are the people fighting ISIS, the regimes in Tehran and Damascus that will reap the benefits of the war the president just announced. They may be less irrational and unpredictable than ISIS. But if anything, America’s new unspoken allies in the anti-ISIS war actually represent a greater “challenge to international order” and a more significant “threat to America’s core interests” than the vicious characters the United States will soon drop bombs on.
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.
Oh, and according to the secretary of state, despite the fact that we are out “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” (the president’s words from last night’s speech), we aren’t actually in a war with ISIL. Rather,
“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”
Words matter. Of course we are in a war with ISIL, the cluelessness with which we are fighting this war notwithstanding. Pretending otherwise (a) fools no one who is actually paying attention to what is going on; and (b) only serves to foster a policy of delusion amongst policymakers responsible for the prosecution of this war. And yes, that last should scare you.
1. Ignore for the moment the fact that there are a lot of people out there who are unfairly tagged with the label “neoconservative,” including Cheney and Rumsfeld.