The President’s Speech

In an address to the nation last night, President Barack Obama committed the US to doing something about ISIS — aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or just the Islamic State — the Salafist group that has taken over about a third of both those countries.  The goal, the president said, is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the group, through airstrikes and support for Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, as well as elements of the Syrian opposition. The US will also send an additional 475 military advisers to the region. But no combat troops — the president was clear about that.

There was good and bad in the president’s speech. First, the good. It’s good that the US has committed to address the threat ISIS poses to the Middle East and, ultimately, the US itself. ISIS does not see itself as merely a regional player. It has pretensions to reestablish the caliphate, the global Islamic polity, with itself at the head. It has money, numbers, and growing prestige. By ruling a large territory in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS serves as an inspiration for jidahists everywhere. Sooner or later, ISIS or others it inspires will attack targets in the West. Better to address the threat now than wait for something terrible to happen.

It’s also good that President Obama talked about humanitarian assistance to ISIS’s victims, including Christians, whom he mentioned by name. True, to my mind, at least, the president continues to downplay Christian suffering in an unfortunate way. Last night, for example, he alluded to the genocide of Yazidis, but said nothing about the genocide of Christians. Still, he did mention Christians, and he deserves credit for that.

Now, the bad. By publicly and categorically ruling out the use of American combat troops, President Obama undercut his stated goal. Many experts think it will be necessary for the US to send ground troops back to Iraq if ISIS is really to be defeated. Maybe it won’t be. But to rule out American troops from the start gives Iraqi forces an excuse for holding back (“If they won’t fight, why should we?”), and ISIS an incentive to buy time until it can wear down the Iraqi army — or infiltrate and corrupt it. It would have been wiser for the president to say publicly only that US combat troops are not an option at present. Keep ISIS guessing.

Second, the President stated flatly that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic.'” ISIS does not represent the whole of Islam, or even the majority stream within Islam today. As the president said, ISIS victimizes Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and many Muslims are appalled by the group’s conduct. But ISIS has definite roots in parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, its treatment of Christians has antecedents in Islamic history. ISIS did not invent the dhimma on its own.

It’s understandable why President Obama would wish to deny the Islamic roots of ISIS. Defeating the group will require the cooperation of other Muslims, including Salafists like the Saudis, and there is no point antagonizing them. And no one wants to see a backlash against the millions of our Muslim fellow citizens in the United States, who deserve to live in peace. But saying that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic'” is likely to suggest to people who know better — including the audience for the president’s speech in the Mideast – that the president doesn’t understand the situation. It would have been better to avoid comparative religion entirely, and say only that we invite Muslims and all people of goodwill to join the coalition against ISIS.

Finally, parts of the speech had an unfortunate, self-absorbed quality. Take this excerpt:

Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Rather a lot of personal references here. “A core principle of my presidency?” Surely, defending America is a core principle of every president’s presidency. Brave men lived before Agamemnon.

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