“It Is Hard To Put the Case For War Back In the Box”

I’m frankly a bit surprised at the lack of real analysis of Obama’s IS speech this morning (I don’t count John McCain’s “I was right. I’VE ALWAYS BEEN RIGHT!” war-mongering as “analysis”). But I was impressed by David Corn’s take on the inherent riskiness of a case for counter-terrorism action rather than war based on a serious of contingencies:

Obama is presenting the public a military action that is not based on a black-and-white view (ISIS is evil, we will destroy it any way we can) but one predicated on grays. If US air strikes can make a difference, if other nations join in, if the Iraqi government gets it acts together, if the Iraqi military can do its job, then the United States will use its military might in a limited way to vanquish ISIS. A conditional case for war does not easily sync up with the stark nature of such an enterprise. If any of these ifs don’t come to be, will Obama be cornered and forced by his rhetoric to do something? After depicting ISIS as a peril warranting a US military response—and with much of the American public convinced of that—can he then shrug his shoulders and say never mind? Will he provide the hawks an opening for political attacks and demands for greater military intervention? In his speech, the man who ran for president with the pledge to end the Iraq war declared, “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” But what if all else fails? He vowed to eradicate the ISIS “cancer,” noting it will take time to do so. Can he stop if his non-war counter-terrorism campaign does not defeat the disease? It is hard to put the case for war back in the box.

It doesn’t help that Obama closed his speech, as I noted last night, with an appeal to American Exceptionalism: if we don’t “destroy” IS, we’re not simply exposing U.S. interests to danger, but skewing the moral compass of the whole world. That distorted self-image of the United States as the first, last and only resort for the vindication of wrongs is also difficult to “put back in the box” after it’s projected so often, even as a rhetorical afterthought.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.