The Needle Obama Chose To Thread

Having read the initial reactions to the president’s speech on IS/ISIS/ISIL (we really do need to reach a consensus on what to call these birds) last night, I generally stand by my weary and impressionistic reaction last night. For a variety of reasons we’ll be kicking around for days and weeks, Obama has decided it is important diplomatically, legally and politically to place the ongoing and impending action against the Islamic State into the Counter-Terrorism basket instead of the Limited War basket. Among other things, that makes the timing of the speech more appropriate: what we are doing and are about to do belongs in the chain of U.S.-directed actions flowing from 9/11 rather than from the failed Iraq War. But Bush and Cheney, of course, sought to place the Iraq War itself in that same chain of events, which is one of the reasons Obama’s classification will be constantly challenged.

From a practical point of view, this approach does undermine the impetus for a congressional force authorization that might constrain Obama’s freedom of action, albeit only by relying on the rather over-used post-9/11 force authorization. But it also undermines the notion of action against IS being a tangible enterprise with a beginning, middle and end. The Yemeni/Somali analogies Obama adopted are hardly reassuring if one hopes for a future in which the scary threat of journalist-beheading jihadis fades from our consciousness. Similarly, treating IS as another terrorist network rather than a proto-state with a government, territory and a capital (and this may be why Obama resists using the word “state” for the group) would seem to reduce the odds of “destroying” rather than merely “degrading” it; as I argued recently, one of the good things about IS is that it might be deterrable given the possibility of wiping out the caliphate’s psychologically important headquarters in Raqqa.

In any event, having simultaneously raised the stakes of the fight against these people (especially in the problematic venue of Syria) via a dramatic White House speech, while lowering expectations for some sort of American-dominated shock-and-awe military action, Obama has directed everyone’s attention to the ever-difficult search not simply for “allies” but for surrogates willing and able to take on the high-casualty-risking brunt of ground operations against IS. At one point last night, Obama seemed to imply a “coalition” had already been put together; at another it sounded like a work in progress under John Kerry’s direction. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted at New York this morning, there’s no reason to believe the problem of “allies” has been solved whether we’re talking about the dubious new Iraq government, the “moderate insurgents” in Syria, or the Sunni tribal leaders we will be trying to bribe back into our sphere of influence. But that’s the needle Obama has chosen to thread lest the mistakes of 2002-03 be repeated.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.