11 Sep 2014

Obama targets IS in Syria: war by any other name

There’s not very much ‘pure and simple’ about the world at the moment.

Perhaps that’s why US news networks’ wobbly lines indicated the satisfaction of viewers watching President Obama’s speech on the Islamic State (IS) peaked around the point when he described the jihadists as “a terrorist organisation, pure and simple.” He added that they were unique in their brutality.

His tone throughout this all-important speech was plainly spoken, strong and direct.  No exaggeration of the threat, no reaching for apocalyptic phraseology (note Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden).  Instead it was measured – confirming that the Islamic State (which he calls ISIS) poses no direct immediate threat to the American homeland, but if left unchecked, they could.  Particularly via foreign fighters.  And in the meantime, they’re doing vast damage to anyone they do reach.

For a president who ends wars, this was beyond his comfort zone. But nevertheless he spoke of the need for American leadership and how American power can make a difference, but only in partnership with the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the Syrian opposition – those supplying the boots on the ground.   Not to mention, a “broad coalition” to roll back the threat. Think the UK, other European allies, Australia, Canada, and critically, regional players like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon.

Was there the specificity that John Kerry, the secretary of state promised? Not so much, but then would any commander in chief lay out in great detail his blueprint for war?

President Obama did manage to define better than he had previously the strategy and the endgame. This is all about degrading and destroying the Islamic State he says.  There’ll be an expansion of a systematic campaign of air strikes and he won’t hesitate to go into Syria. In fact, he says it’s now a “core principle” of his presidency (kind of late in the game) that if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.  Suddenly we’re well beyond the campaign that began with twin aims: one humanitarian, the other defeating a direct threat to US interests.

The president’s likening of the new expanded campaign against Islamic State to US engagement in Yemen and Somalia left commentators wondering whether that was such a great idea. Yemen and Somalia haven’t been massive success stories for the US, and certainly don’t have a vast amount in common with the Islamic State threat.  But unlike Iraq, they are engagements America has managed without combat personnel on the ground — which was perhaps the president’s point.

Extra troops to fight jihadists

There’s much to write about this: about those extra 475 troops the president pledged to join the more than 1,000 others currently training and supporting those fighting the jihadists; counter-terrorism campaigns; countering IS’s “warped ideology”; stopping the money and the membership; as well as humanitarian assistance to those who the Islamic State has displaced.

The president said he’d welcome Congress’ support for the campaign (i.e. there’ll be no resolution debated on the floor) although he does need their help to approve funding for the moderate Syrian opposition.

The immediate headlines from Congress were mixed. Democrat Senator Mark Udell (who’s on the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, and whose seat is under threat in the upcoming mid term elections) said the American people need “assurance we’re not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East”.  Congressman Joe Kennedy urged a thoughtful and thorough debate about the mission, timeline, cost and exit strategy.  “For that to happen,” he wrote, “the President must come to Congress.”

Another Democrat senator up for re-election, Mark Begich, voiced his opposition to the president’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels.

The Republicans have made merry amidst a chorus of “we-told-you-so”.  They’re pointing to the reversals from a president previously against getting involved in Syria altogether; against arming the Syrian rebels; against putting troops on the ground (with the latest 500 more troops the total of American service personnel inside Iraq is now close to 1700).

In his speech, the president described his strategy against the Islamic State as counter-terrorism.  A more accurate term is war.  That’s what it sounds like. Pure and simple.

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