On October 7, 2002, President George W. Bush gave a speech making the case for confronting Saddam Hussein, building toward a war that Barack Obama declared stupid. Bush premised his case on the notion that Iraq posed a unique threat. "Some ask why Iraq is different from other countries or regimes that also have terrible weapons. While there are many dangers in the world, the threat from Iraq stands alone—because it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place," he said. "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people. This same tyrant has tried to dominate the Middle East, has invaded and brutally occupied a small neighbor, has struck other nations without warning, and holds an unrelenting hostility toward the United States. By its past and present actions, by its technological capabilities, by the merciless nature of its regime, Iraq is unique."
Last night, President Obama gave a speech making the case for a deeper American intervention against ISIS, a radical Sunni militia that operates in Iraq. He also premised his interventionism on the group being unique. "ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple," he said. "And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way. In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists—Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff."
As Obama well knows, ISIS is not, in fact, unique in its brutality. They are not the first actors in the region to execute prisoners, kill children, rape women, or threaten genocide. Saddam Hussein did all that. Bashar al-Assad turned chemical weapons on children. Is that somehow less brutal than beheading journalists? How can a man who regarded the Iraq War as stupid, despite the fact that the regime we overthrew was every bit as brutal as ISIS, now cite the supposed "unique" brutality of ISIS as a primary justification for taking America to war in Iraq?
He was appealing to our fears and disgust, not our reason, much like his predecessor.
Obama also believes the Iraq War was stupid because the claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction falsely inflated the threat he posed to Americans. Bush talked about WMDs in that 2002 speech, and went on to say this:
Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time... Iraq possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles—far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and other nations—in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work. We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States. And, of course, sophisticated delivery systems aren't required for a chemical or biological attack; all that might be required are a small container and one terrorist or Iraqi intelligence operative to deliver it.
Although Hussein did not possess WMDs, he did possess a large, experienced army; ballistic missiles; and Iraqi intelligence operatives capable of perpetrating terrorism. If Obama thinks the lack of WMDs fatally undercut the 2002 case for war in Iraq, how is it that he now thinks national security requires intervention against a group with no WMDs or ballistic missiles or highly trained international intelligence apparatus? Didn't Hussein pose a bigger potential threat in 2002 than ISIS does now? "ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel, and facilities," Obama said. "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." Nearly all of that could've been truthfully said about Hussein.
Bush said it.
For a moment, Obama indicated that he would explain how his effort will be different from bygone failures. I perked up. "I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, as if to reassure a dubious public. "It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground." That's a relief to those of us who don't want to see another 5,000 American soldiers shipped home in body bags, several times more with missing limbs or brain injuries, and a years-long epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse.
But if America didn't successfully eliminate violent extremists in Afghanistan or Iraq even with tens of thousands of boots on the ground, if extremists in those countries began to gain more power as soon as Americans left, if we didn't manage to successfully train their armies even during a years-long deployment of our best forces, why do we think that a foe Chuck Hagel characterizes as the most formidable we've seen in the War on Terror can be beat with airstrikes and a few hundred advisers? Or are they not as formidable as Team Obama has led us to believe? The White House may have an internally consistent logic that they're not sharing. Evaluating it is difficult so long as they talk to us like we're stupid.
The arguments in Obama's speech brought me no closer to supporting intervention against ISIS not because I am confident that I know the correct policy, but because the rhetoric he used was bullshit—that is to say, words put forth in an effort to persuade without any regard for whether they're true or false, rigorous or not. "Abroad," he said at one point, "American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world." The one constant? Beyond the lazy, inaccurate jingoism, that claim comes from a man who said of his predecessor, "This president may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free the world has remained open. And it's time to fill that role once more."
He doesn't even believe it—or was it the critique of Bush he didn't believe?
A politician cannot make both claims and expect to be heard as if his words are credible.
The same disregard for past statements haunts the section of the speech about the war power. "I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL," he told the nation, with no further explanation offered, despite the fact that he went on record as a presidential candidate with a war powers standard that would plainly forbid acting as he now plans to without Congressional approval. Having totally reversed himself, he adds insult to injury by speaking as if his new position is obvious, uncontroversial, and correct beyond dispute. Meanwhile, multiple authors at Lawfare are openly scoffing at the new legal theory that he has suddenly adopted.
Whether a willingness to bullshit the American people, even on a matter as grave as war, is already within anyone who puts themselves forward for the presidency, or a type of mendacity they all come to see as justified only after entering office, I cannot say. But I reject the widespread presumption that this is an inevitable and necessary part of presidential leadership to which we must resign ourselves, so much so that we're expected to respect these men even as they willfully mislead us.
And there is, alas, an even bigger problem—the many vital details Obama sees no need to address at all.
Representative Justin Amash of Michigan posted a short response to Obama's speech on his Facebook page. It includes a number of good questions. "The administration leaked to newspapers Wednesday morning that Americans must prepare for at least a three-year war, long after the president has left office," Amash wrote.
In his address, the president did not limit his proposed war to even that time frame. Who are our partners and what resources will they commit? Will the president stop our military involvement at air strikes regardless of how our allies are faring? Which rebel groups does the president intend to arm in Syria and Iraq? How do we know that those weapons won’t be turned against us and our allies?
When will we have accomplished our objectives? After we've successfully occupied northern Iraq and installed a more functional government? After the United States has done the same in Syria? Does this disregard the lessons we should have learned from the president’s war in Libya or the previous war in Iraq?
These questions and others as important would be raised and fleshed out were America to have a Congressional debate about war. The votes cast at the end of that debate would permit voters to hold their elected leaders accountable in future elections.
Yet Obama is denying us that.
Obama is taking the United States to war in a conflict about which Americans know almost nothing, and doing so without approval from their elected representatives. Due to the singular recklessness of his predecessor, which he could've equaled only had he hired Dick Cheney, Obama is regarded by some as an honest, prudent steward of U.S. foreign policy. He is neither of those things. His surge in Afghanistan was a bust, his illegal invasion of Libya soured into a security and humanitarian disaster, and he is once again waging an extra-Constitutional war. If that sounds harsh, just imagine what Senator Obama would say about him.
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