With Islamic State speech, Obama deepens US involvement in Middle East

President Obama strove to differentiate this new battle with terrorists ‘unique in their brutality’ from the wars he inherited, in particular the war in Iraq. His intervention rationale placed a priority on humanitarian reasons.

Saul Loeb/AP
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.

In presenting to the American people his strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State (IS), President Obama essentially launched what he came into office pledging to get the United States out of: an open-ended military campaign in the Middle East.

Perhaps because he was declaring the kind of action he once vowed to end, the president strove in his 15-minute White House address Wednesday night to differentiate this new battle with terrorists “unique in their brutality” from the wars he inherited, in particular the war in Iraq.

This war will entail no US combat forces on the ground, Mr. Obama said – although he did announce 475 more military advisers for Iraq, which will bring the total there to about 1,600. He also underscored that no military assignment, including the pilots carrying out airstrikes against IS positions, is guaranteed risk-free.

Second, this campaign will not be America going it alone, he said, but the US joined in every aspect of the anti-IS strategy by a “broad coalition of partners.” This includes, in particular, Sunni Arab nations that can help “mobilize” the Sunni populations of Syria against IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

But while Obama laid out a four-part strategy for “rolling back” and defeating IS, he evoked an intervention rationale that also places a priority on the humanitarian reasons for undertaking this fight and the moral dimension of America’s engagement.

Noting he was speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama said it is only America that has “the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists” and “on behalf of [a] common humanity.” He told the story of a Yazidi Iraqi man who said, once his IS-threatened family was safe thanks to US intervention, that “our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”

Obama then told Americans, “That is the difference we make in the world.”

The emphasis Obama placed on the humanitarian and ideological grounds for this intervention – he also said that “ISIL is not Muslim” and that “most of its victims are Muslims” – is a welcome surprise to some foreign policy analysts.

“This is an ideological battle against Muslim fundamentalism and radical jihadism, so it’s not just important to fight the terrorists but to take on the fundamentalist ideology,” says Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on Muslims’ confrontation with fundamentalism.

Saying that limiting the strategy for addressing the IS threat to military intervention would be “shortsighted and a significant mistake,” Professor Bennoune says she thinks Obama “gets it,” but that he has to emphasize the threat that America would face from an IS left unchecked by US military force to rally public support.

“It’s a conundrum for the president,” says Bennoune, author of “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” a study of Muslim responses to fundamentalism in 30 countries. “To get the support of war-weary Americans, he has to play up the terrorist threat, but the real need is to address this by strengthening Muslim communities.”

For others, though, Obama’s strategy in its essence is no different from what has guided the war on terrorism since the aftermath of 9/11.

“This is absolutely a continuation of the long war,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and national security expert prominent for his criticism of America’s Middle East wars. “Whether or not the effort to defeat ISIS succeeds, this new intervention is not going to bring the long war to an end.”

Obama is following a familiar pattern of “use force or don’t act,” Professor Bacevich says, but he adds that force did not work in Afghanistan or Iraq and that it won’t address the roots of a challenge like IS.

“Relying on force to do what – bring stability to, democratize, pacify, and make friends with the Islamic world – does not seem with experience to offer anything in the way of a remedy,” he says. “Military action is not going to solve the larger problem of the conflict between traditional forms of Islam and a world tending increasingly towards secular modernity.”

Bacevich, who says he is not advocating inaction, insists there is a moral argument to be made for intervention against IS – but that is not what he sees Obama doing. “His argument is that ISIS poses a clear threat to the United States,” he says, “and that’s wrong.”

What stands out to others in Obama’s strategy is its emphasis on counterterrorism tactics of the sort the US has used in Yemen and Somalia “for years,” as Obama said.

“I liken the situation today to the end of 2009, when we had the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit” by a terrorist trained by the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and expert in national security policy in the Middle East at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

That bombing near-miss “led to a much more aggressive stance towards Al Qaeda,” he says. “In a similar way, the shocking advances of ISIS, topped by the atrocious murders of two Americans, are now prompting this much more assertive stance towards this problem.”

In his address, Obama underscored his duty as commander in chief to protect the American people, citing what he said is a “core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Mr. Katulis says that after a period of “disarray” this summer in the administration’s approach to IS and its provocations, it now appears that the “clarity” of the threat IS poses and the “evil” it represents have galvanized the president – and broadened the administration’s arguments for intervention.

“It’s led the administration back to this notion of ‘the battle of ideas’ a little bit,” Katulis says. Still, he laments how a cautious president is still “behind the curve” in matching Americans’ rising clamor for action – and he sees a reluctance to deliver the justification for intervention he says the situation demands.

“I still don’t see a full-throated defense and explanation of the moral basis for addressing these extremists and their actions,” he says.

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