Monday, December 7, 2015

Obama speaks, but will the Middle East listen?

Last night, President Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office, speaking on a number of issues related to national security in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. Specifically, he defended his strategy for fighting ISIS, lobbied Congress to pass some critical but relatively minor restrictions on who may purchase firearms, and urged Americans not to be bated into discrimination or lured into a state of perpetual war.

The New York Times editorial board praised Obama for projecting strength and advocating for calm. While I have been critical of Obama's handling of ISIS, I must say I remain impressed with his resolve to act with the patience needed to attain a truly workable solution. Predictably, the Republican response was a slightly more polite version of, ", what a pussy."

But for all their rhetoric, the Republican presidential candidates have no short-term military solution that is in any way discernible from what Obama is already doing. Front-runner Donald Trump recently articulated his exceedingly complex plan:
ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil camps, certain areas of oil that they took away. [...] They have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the shit out of 'em.
Such elegance. But more or less, this is what Obama is doing and what he has been doing since September 2014. So far as I know, Lindsey Graham is the only presidential candidate explicitly calling for a sizable force ground troops in Syria and Iraq. The other Republicans' position is that Obama is weak and that they would project strength by...well, by continuing his policies.

Perhaps the most ironic response was that of House Speaker Paul Ryan:
Our primary responsibility is to keep the American people safe from the real and evolving threat of radical Islamic terrorism. That will require the president to produce a comprehensive strategy to confront and defeat ISIS. The enemy is adapting, and we must too. That's why what we heard tonight was so disappointing: no new plan, just a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy.
Ryan may be correct that the Obama policy is failing -- which I'll address in a moment. But somewhere in the midst of his required outrage at Obama, he must have forgotten that he is arguably the most powerful member of legislative branch, which is also capable of establishing a definitive policy agenda. Congress is also the only branch of government with the Constitutional authority to declare war, though again, to my knowledge, no such vote has been called. So again, I ask, what is the alternative strategy to the Obama plan?

Interestingly, the Senate did call a terrorism related vote on Dec. 3. Before them were two gun control measures, one requiring more stringent background checks on individuals purchasing firearms at gun shows and another preventing suspects on the FBI terror watch list from purchasing guns at all. Both were voted down, with presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham all voting against the bill.

This is truly mind-boggling. First, the fact that Congress would vote against more stringent background checks runs counter to widespread, bipartisan public opinion: 85% of Americans -- including 79% of Republicans -- are in favor of such laws. Pew Research Center, who conducted this polling, didn't ask about public opinion concerning potential terrorists' gun rights, I assume because the very question is laughable. I can only imagine the level of cognitive dissonance required to allow a person to say, on the one hand, he believes national security is the most important responsibility of the presidency, while on the other hand casting a vote that continues to allow terror suspects to legally acquire firearms. 

Still, the Republicans are correct on one point: Obama's strategy will not work to defeat ISIS. But the GOP error here is twofold. The first is they believe defeating ISIS is the intent of the airstrikes. The second is blaming the strategy, when in truth, the problem is a lack of will and political feasibility.

I firmly believe Obama -- and any American politician for that matter -- wants to see ISIS defeated and terrorism stamped out. I don't believe that's the aim of our efforts in Syria. We're attempting to buy time by containing a threat, not eliminating it. By that lesser measure of success, the airstrike strategy is completely viable.

The reason for this lower bar is simple: Americans lack the will to win this war on our traditional military terms. The debacle in Afghanistan and the quagmire that was/is Iraq is fresh on the public's mind. Nobody wants to go down that road again, which is why no politician with a snowball's chance in hell of becoming president is calling for ground troops. John McCain lost the 2008 election to Obama for a variety of reasons, one of which was his commitment to the Second Iraq War. The electorate was wary of his assertion that a 100 year occupation of Iraq might be necessary for a total military victory. But he was probably right then, and he's probably right now.

The problem is that nobody wants to commit 100 years to a ground war. Simultaneously, there seems to be a recognition that dropping bombs is not enough. Obama is unquestionably right that "many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure."

We are.

But there is an eventual cure, and Obama, who favors the long game, nailed it during his speech:
If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate. That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.
There is a war at our doorstep. We can no longer prevent it. But we can control how the conflict will be framed. We must adhere to our values and temper caution with compassion, particularly in our treatment of refugees from the Syrian conflict. We must embrace the peaceful Muslim as our neighbor, for only then can we rightly condemn the Islamic terrorist as our enemy. And in so doing, we put pressure on other countries in the region -- predominantly Muslim countries -- to take military action against ISIS. 

A war between Muslim states would not carry the the immense and overt religious connotations that a war between the U.S. and ISIS would. A war of the latter kind has no immediate end, if any end at all. As Americans, we need to exercise the wisdom to see this conflict for what it is: a war that we cannot win, at least not alone.