Obama's Speech on ISIS, in Plain English

The president didn't answer the most important questions about his war in Iraq and Syria.

Saul Loeb/Reuters

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.

Q: Why are we fighting ISIS? Is the group a threat to the United States or American allies?

A: No, not really.

“ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel, and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”

In plain English: The threat is to Syria and Iraq, both Iranian client states. The threat beyond the region is completely hypothetical and rhetorical.

Q: Do we have a plan to defeat ISIS?

A: Again, no, not really.

“We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”

In plain English: Without competent forces on the ground, U.S. airpower alone won’t decide anything.

Q: If the U.S. isn’t fighting the ground war, does it have capable allies who will?

A: Nope.

“We will also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control. Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.”

In plain English: We’re desperately casting about for allies who aren’t Hezbollah or Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Q: Won’t Iran’s ayatollahs and Syria’s Assad regime end up the real winners?

A: Um, are we on the record?

“[W]e cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people—a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”

It will take more than a line or two to translate those sentences into plain English. Note the beauty of: “We cannot rely on an Assad regime… .” Not: “We will not work with the Assad regime.” Not: “The Assad regime will not be the beneficiary of our military campaign against ISIS.” And certainly not: “I remain committed to my statement of August 18, 2011 that Syria’s Assad must step down.” Instead, the/ president’s words about legitimacy delivered a strange compliment to Bashar al-Assad, implying that his regime had been legitimate at some point in the past.

As for Iran, Hezbollah, and the Revolutionary Guards—they got no mention at all, even as an Iranian armored brigade has crossed the border into Iraq to fight ISIS on the ground in defense of its client in Baghdad.

Q: What ultimately are you hoping to achieve?

A: It’s complicated.

“We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity. … [This strategy] is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”

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.