Never has a declaration of war been so cautious. Never has an American president spent so much time talking about what the declaration doesn't mean and left so many questions about what it does mean.
But what President Obama put forth in his nationally televised address Wednesday night still was a declaration of war—even if he did prefer to call it a "counterterrorism campaign." What made it more remarkable was that it was delivered by a president who ran for office on an antiwar platform and hoped his legacy would be leaving the nation at peace.
This is the president who, 19 months ago in a speech at the National Defense University, stated that the war on terrorism, "like all wars, must end"; who 33 weeks ago in his State of the Union address said, "America must move off a permanent war footing"; and who 14 days ago told reporters that "we don't have a strategy yet" for combating the Islamist terrorist group, ISIS, that has seized broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
But here he was Wednesday evening unveiling a strategy and vowing to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and "hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are."
And he was doing it precisely one year to the night that he stood in the same place in the White House Cross Hall looking into the East Room. It was there, on Sept. 10, 2013, that he backed down from his threat to launch military strikes into Syria to punish dictator Bashar al-Assad. He used that speech to appeal to the emotions of war-weary Americans, drawing what he called a "sickening" picture of Assad's massacre of civilians, of "men, women, and children lying in rows, killed by poison gas." He didn't even mention that more than 160,000 civilians have perished in the fighting in Syria. But neither the president's talk of children dying nor the broader reports of civilian victims moved this country to support American intervention.