President Obama’s ISIS Speech: No U-Turn

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President Obama’s 13-minute speech from the Oval Office Dec. 6 was intended to allay the concerns of the public over the mounting danger of jihadist terrorism following the horrific attack in San Bernadino, California. Yet his remarks may have the opposite effect and leave the American people with the impression that their president regards the increasing pattern of Islamist violence as more a nuisance than a threat.

President Obama began his speech by seconding his FBI director’s conclusion that the San Bernardino murders by a radicalized Islamist couple was an “act of terrorism.” The perpetrators, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, had been inspired to violence by ISIS - though there is no indication that either had an operational connection to the terrorist network.

The evolution from sophisticated terrorist strikes against the West – such as the “planes operation” on September 11, 2001 – to homegrown terrorism has been long in development and is likely to endure. President Obama cited this trend toward smaller-scale plots as a measure of success in our war against the terror “cult of death,” which it may well be. Nonetheless, he failed to articulate a robust response, preferring to show confidence in the mission to “destroy” ISIS without demonstrating a credible strategy to achieve this ambitious outcome.

In lieu of a new initiatives, the president merely reiterated the fact that the anti-ISIS coalition is “65 countries” deep, as if the coalition constituted a unified and powerful alliance rather than a hodgepodge of states with varied capabilities and divergent interests. President Obama also cited ongoing airstrikes that are removing important ISIS leaders – at the impressive rate of one every 48 hours – along with heavy weapons and oil tankers.

As events have demonstrated, however, the bombing campaign is necessary but nowhere near sufficient to turn the tide of battle. This was confirmed only last week when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs repudiated administration claims that ISIS has been “contained” in its strategic heartland. A few months earlier, intelligence analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency also dissented from the official line that the war against ISIS and its affiliates is being won.

To distract from the conspicuous discrepancy between means and ends, President Obama declared yet again that he would not order “a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil,” as if that was in the offing. What has been proposed by critics of administration policy such as Sen. John McCain is establishing a safe zone for Syrian civilians (enforced primarily by U.S. airpower) and a contingent of 10,000-20,000 ground forces to support allies like the Kurds and potential allies like the Sunni tribes (in both Iraq and Syria). If President Obama were serious about “drawing upon every aspect of American power” in this fight, as he pledged to do, he would adopt such a strategy. It is clear that ISIS and its kindred movements will not be defeated without it.