WASHINGTON – After months of timidity and confusion on what needs to be done, finally in a prime time TV speech to the Nation President Obama declared that the US Government intends to destroy ISIS (or ISIL or Islamic State).
ISIL is an existential threat
According to Obama, this radical Islamist organization, now controlling large parts of both Syria and Iraq (a territory the size of the US state of Indiana, or the size of Belgium), represents a direct threat not just for the Middle East but also for the United States.
And this is because its ideology portrays America as a mortal enemy to be struck. As of now ISIL may lack the means to attack America through terror actions, but it certainly has every intention to do so.
In other words, according to President Obama, until ISIL continues to function and operate, at the same attracting new recruits, America is in danger. And the point here is not about punishing ISIL for its barbaric methods and medieval cruelty in dealing with opponents, (that would include the public beheading of two American journalists who had been taken prisoners).
The point is that an organized militant group animated by a radical anti-Western ideology represents an existential threat to American national security. We have seen this with al Qaeda, and ISIL is no different.
Goal has been defined
It is most important that Obama finally defined his objective: engage ISIL, degrade its capabilities and eventually destroy it. It is also important that the President realistically indicated that this campaign may take a few years.
So, far so good.
Too many explanations
However, in his speech Obama went beyond what is necessary. He tried to “explain” to the American public what kind of operation this is going to be. And here Obama stopped being Commander in Chief and behaved like a politician.
He tried to square many circles. He tried to demonstrate that this new action is in perfect alignment with established administration policies. (Not true). He tried to say that this is a “counter terror” operation, and therefore “not a war”. (This is a real stretch, and mostly untrue). He declared that there will be no US combat troops on the ground. (A dangerous blanket statement; simply because at some point there may a need to have US forces engaged in combat).
In summary, he defined in advance too many elements of this new anti-ISIL campaign that has not even started yet. It obvious that Obama purely for political reasons engaged in this difficult game of saying at the same time that this conflict is most serious, but it is not a war.
However, this is dangerous. Indeed, some of these markers and arbitary boundaries as to what we shall and shall not do while fighting ISIL may have to be updated, modified, and what not.
We should have learnt a thing or two about the surprises to be encountered in “asymmetric warfare” against a violent but shrewd ideological enemy who uses unorthodox and unexpected tactics and methods. Which is to say that the various stages of this complicated conflict against an atypical opponent cannot be scripted in advance. Soon enough President Obama may find himself in the awkward position of explaining why he has to change this or that.
The domestic front
Having reviewed all this, it is important to note that this about-face regarding the seriousness of the ISIL threat, (after Obama watched it grow and did nothing about it for more than a year), takes place in a really poisoned domestic political environment.
We are now in a sad moment in American history in which it is normal for “experts” who simply do not like Obama (or any other sitting President) to go on TV and explain why everything that he is doing in matters of foreign and security policies is wrong, if not unpatriotic, stupid or insane.
Obama is our President
Of course, an open debate on current policies is at the heart of any healthy democracy. Yes, but up to a point. I am no great fan of the President. But I recognize that he is our Commander in Chief. He is the one; and there is no other. This is not a debate on corporate taxes, where there should be give and take.
Therefore, let our President do his job. If any counsel or advice regarding ISIL may be pertinent, this should be offered by people with real qualifications, and in private; not on TV or in the op-ed pages, just to score political points.
This is war, (at least this is what I call it). This is serious business. President Obama is in charge. Let him do his job, on behalf of the Nation that elected him.
Keep Congress informed
Sure enough, the President has an obligation to keep the senior Congressional Leaders informed. It is his duty to brief the appropriate House and Senate Committees, (Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Intelligence, and others). But this should be done via classified briefings.
This is his duty. But we cannot expect him or other members of the administration to go on TV in order to explain and justify each and every tactical decision. (“This is why we are going to bomb this”, or “Why are bringing in 200 more advisors”, or “Why we are going to offer training to this group”).
It may be indeed appropriate for the President and his Team to give the Nation periodic updates on the conduct of this anti-ISIL operation. But they should not be expected to engage in public debates in order to justify the merit of this or that turn.
Let the President do his job
Again, this is war. This is serious business. Our Constitution says that the President, as Commander in Chief, is in charge.