The President’s speech this past Sunday has, as such speeches always do, evoked torrents of instant commentary—most of it in the now standard op-ed length. Some of that commentary has stuck narrowly to the subject of the speech, which was about terrorism and counter-terrorism policy. Some has waded more widely into the Administration’s Middle East portfolio, which is not logically subsumed by the terrorism issue but which certainly elides with it. And some commentary has ranged further afield still, commenting on the President’s foreign policy as a whole, as well as on the politics of the whole business. By coincidence, too, a few serious articles and studies on the Administration’s Middle East policy, the terrorism component included (and these are longer and more substantive than an op-ed), have recently appeared that were published and certainly had to have been written close on in advance of the speech. Taken together, all this stuff amounts to a veritable smorgasbord of delectations for a pokey, latecomer commentator like me.There is also another way to typologize the commentary: the predictably partisan, the more subtly partisan, and the more or less objectively non-partisan—like this one, of course.Not that I’ve read every single remark proffered on the President’s speech, not even just in English, but I’ve seen enough to get the gist. The obviously partisan criticisms panned the speech as just an attempt to rewrap the same old failing policies, chiding the President for his stubbornness in the face of failure, his inability to learn from his own mistakes, his overweening passivity, lack of courage, lack of a coherent strategy, and, above all, for grievously underestimating the nature of the threat. Some of this criticism also mentioned the President’s earlier remarks, the day before the Paris attacks, which held ISIS to be contained, if not in eclipse.A few commentators remarked on the wider politics of the speech. TAI’s own Walter Russell Mead observed that the speech did not help the President’s approval ratings; it is as if lame-duckness has set in already, such that no one is really listening to or taking Obama seriously anymore when he talks of such issues. Another commentator—who happens to be a good friend and is someone with whom I usually agree—likened the speech to Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of 1979.In the face of an avalanche of criticism from Republicans, stalwart defenders of the President’s point of view were hard to come by. Perhaps the closest anyone came is Fred Kaplan, whose wide-ranging Foreign Affairs essay “Obama’s Way” was obviously prepared before this past Sunday evening. Kaplan’s essay is reportorial in style and is based on about two score interviews with present and former insiders, both happy and less-than-happy. He is not entirely uncritical of the President’s record, but he is pretty obviously sympathetic. To be welcomed by so many insiders in the first place marks Kaplan as a favored investigator, and one can almost hear the mutual back patting coming through the essay. In the course of that exercise Kaplan makes—or better, repeats—a few questionable assertions: “Tens of thousands of civilian lives” were “at risk” on the eve of the Libya intervention1; the Syrian regime under Russian pressure “surrendered very nearly all of his chemical weapons for destruction”2; keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq, with or without a SOFA agreement, was “extremely unlikely” to prevent the ISIS surge of 2014 because, Kaplan reasons, 175,000 troops had trouble with them earlier; and there are others. The wonderments of the Iran deal are simply presumed, for example; he doesn’t even bother to argue for it, or even to mention any of the substantive criticisms of it.Despite the subtle partisan flavor of the Kaplan essay, it does the reader a great service by recreating the complexity of the decision environment for these kinds of problems, and it paints a credible if not always flattering picture of how Obama thinks about these issues. He does not think in a systematic strategic fashion, but he does have strong instincts and a lawyerly skill at skewering weak arguments others may bring to him. And this brings me to my first general point: These issues are hard, and they are fraught with consequences. By the time any decision point gets to the President, it means pretty much by definition that it is very hard.It is therefore disingenuous for partisan critics to simplify these things and make it seem as though everything is really very obvious to anyone with a brain, and it is particularly disingenuous when it is done by those critics who have served in government and therefore know better. Were all of George W. Bush’s decisions simple and obvious? No. Did all his key advisers agree on the main points of contention? No. Was Bush a bold and decisive leader, or was his decision-making style, no less and probably more than Obama’s, “maddeningly episodic,” in the words of one then-friendly insider critic? Kaplan quotes Obama toward the end of his essay, and a part of it is worth repeating here. In an unspecified reference to his Libya decision, the President said:
In terms of decisions I make, I do think that I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences. And I am confirmed in my belief that much of the time, we are making judgments based on percentages, and…there are always going to be some complications.
That’s exactly right. It is right for Barack Obama, it was right for George W. Bush and all his predecessors, and it will still be right for Obama’s successors, no matter who they may be.One of the first commentators out of the box on the Sunday evening speech was Peter Beinart, writing on The Atlantic website. Beinart’s point of view is similar to Kaplan’s: partisan but subtle in its reportorial tone. But it is narrower in its target: It’s focused on the speech, and all that Beinart claims he is doing is contrasting Obama’s understanding of the terrorism portfolio with that of his Republican critics. All in all, Beinart did a good job of laying out the basics in a fairly short space—longer than an op-ed, but not very much.Republican see a “war on terror” in grand terms—jihadis as the ideological heirs to the totalitarian menaces of the 20th century, and the threat as “civilizational.” Beinart quotes Marco Rubio as saying, after the Paris attacks, that the radical Muslims “literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” In Rubio’s telling, writes Beinart, “the United States and ‘radical Islam’ are virtual equals, pitted in a ‘civilizational conflict’ that ‘either they win or we win.’” And Beinart writes, accurately I think:
Obama thinks that’s absurd. Unlike Rubio, he considers violent jihadism a small, toxic strain within Islamic civilization, not a civilization itself. And unlike Bush, he doesn’t consider it a serious ideological competitor. In the 1930s, when fascism and communism were at their ideological height, many believed they could produce higher living standards for ordinary people than democratic capitalist societies that were prone to devastating cycles of boom and bust. No one believes that about “radical Islam” today.
Next, Beinart contrasts the Republican view that ISIS and even al-Qaeda are strong and are growing stronger, while Obama thinks they are weak and getting weaker. The Republican view is showcased in a recent AEI publication, dated December 2015, and called A global strategy for combating al Qaeda and the Islamic State, authored by Mary Habeck with James Jay Carafano, Thomas Donnelly, Bruce Hoffman, Seth Jones, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Thomas Mahnken, and Katherine Zimmerman. But Obama stated on Sunday that terrorists now “turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society” because the “strategy that we are using now—air strikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country” is gradually yielding a “sustainable victory.” And of course, like the AEI study, Beinart argues that, “the leading GOP presidential candidates reject that. They believe defeating the Islamic State requires some dramatic, if vaguely defined, new military and ideological exertion.”Beinart doesn’t go into it, but the partisan critique of the President also considers the Paris and San Bernardino attacks as evidence that the policy has failed. But these kinds of attacks are not easy to prevent, especially the self-propelled, organizationally headless San Bernardino kind. Do Republican critics really think that sending a U.S. division or two to attack Raqqa and Mosul is going to prevent that sort of atrocity in the United States? It may actually make those kinds of attacks more likely. I doubt that better gun control laws can prevent them either—though I favor such laws on other, prudential grounds. But to cite the San Bernardino tragedy as evidence that Obama’s approach to terrorism has failed is wildly disingenuous.And now let’s talk about where the divide really shows up: President Obama is dead set against being “drawn once more” into an effort to “occupy foreign lands,” thus allowing the Islamic State to use “our presence to draw new recruits.” As Beinart concludes the point, Obama “believes the Islamic State is ideologically weak,” and so “he thinks America’s current strategy will eventually defeat it unless America commits a large occupying force, which would give the jihadists a massive shot in the arm.” Similarly at home, while Republicans are terrified that large enough numbers of Muslims in America will turn to terrorism so as to make the country fall to its knees, Obama doesn’t believe it will appeal to any but a small handful of American Muslims—unless of course we do very stupid things to alienate and demonize them.As I say, this is a usefully clarifying effort, and I think a basically accurate one. But who, then, is correct? Let’s go back and parse the differences and see what comes of it.When it comes to how ideologically threatening and “civilizational” in scale radical Islam is, I think President Obama is correct. Rubio’s characterization is absurd. It seems to me a garden-variety example of how fear grows out of ignorance. But Obama admitted in the speech that the threat “is real,” that we are “at war” with radical Islam, and that “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.” So this is really an empirical question, around which dwells a thick layer of uncertainty, and which is well described by Obama’s comment that “we are making judgments based on percentages, and…there are always going to be some complications.” How many Muslims in various places—in various Muslim-majority countries, in the refugee flow into Europe, in the United States or coming to the United States—either are already or will be seduced by extremist ideologies and be led to terrorism? Well, no one really knows. It depends to some extent on how we react to the challenge, and to some extent it really doesn’t. Honest people differ on this.What about whether ISIS and al-Qaeda are stronger or weaker? After the Paris attacks the common wisdom stated that the “far enemy” tactics reflected setbacks in the Levant—and certainly there have been setbacks. IS territory in the region has not expanded lately. But the “far enemies” might well have been in the planning stages anyway. Again, we really don’t know. As for the “franchises” or provinces popping up in places like Libya, there is disagreement here too as to what it means. In many cases it looks like symbolic affirmation bereft of any material, financial, or strategic bonds between Raqqa and the “provinces.” But there is some new evidence of personnel and weapons flows.What about money? According to the best guesses, the Islamic State takes in about $80 million per month, half of which comes from draconian taxation, about 43 percent of which comes from oil sales, and the rest from “donations” from abroad. Very belated U.S. air attacks on refineries and tanker trucks have sharply reduced oil revenues in recent weeks, as will a more firmly closed Turkish-Syrian border—if that ever really happens. And no organization, no matter how brutal, can take taxes from a rock, so to the extent that local economic activity increasingly stalls—as it has to under current conditions—that source of money will diminish as well. There are also reports that IS is having trouble paying salaries and that its vaunted social media presence is flagging.We know, too, that from the start ISIS has been an ungainly coalition of true believers, Ba‘athi holdovers, thugs, criminals, and foreigners looking for whatever it is they are looking for. Again, there is enormous uncertainty here, and this, too, is to some extent an empirical question. But on balance, I think the AEI study is more wrong than right, and that Obama is more right than wrong on this point.What about the occupation point? Well, no one I know is contemplating an American-led occupation of Syria, or any crazy nation-building scheme there. So to some extent Obama’s remarks here have the smell and taste of straw. But you don’t have to be a liberal Democrat to appreciate the slippery slope problem, and that includes the slick spots that come with no-fly zones. I know plenty of hawkish Republicans, with experience, who admitted openly when this all started that Syria was indeed a very hard problem specifically in this regard.Now, that said, President Obama asked for options, and get got some that nearly all of his advisers were on board with—and he still demurred. Kaplan tells this story nicely, based on his insider interviews. And in a recent essay, one of those early insiders, Dennis Ross, tells it too. Those of us back when who argued that inaction was going to be more costly and dangerous than action have been proven correct, but again, no one was advocating a conventional American invasion and occupation of Syria. The notion that we never had options between doing nothing and doing it all is false now as it was false then.It follows still, at least to my mind, that an intervention that could really hurt ISIS and burst its public relations recruiting bubble could well be worth the trouble. The Administration is creeping toward the use of more military assets—like the special forces troops described a few days ago by Secretary of Defense Carter. In my view, it should either go heavy or not at all, because the kind of excessively meek, pinprick bombing we’ve been mostly doing since September 2014 has probably been counterproductive.The problem the Republicans have here is that while they accuse the Administration of not having a coherent strategy in Syria (and even Fred Kaplan acknowledges the point), they don’t either. Liberating Raqqa and Mosul by force of American-led arms is not a strategy; it’s just an instrument. Who will rule in those places after liberation? If you don’t have a credible answer to that question, you don’t have a strategy.So in short, Obama’s reluctance to go all in is understandable, because this is a very hard question to answer practically. On the other hand, unless the United States is willing to put some real skin in the game, it will never be able to recruit the allies it needs to answer this question, and it will cede influence to Russians, Iranians, and others who do not wish to have it answered in a way we will appreciate.So I find myself in an odd spot: I agree with the President’s judgment on many of the key abstract decision-points, at least when it comes to the terrorism portfolio, but I also think he has still managed to screw up the regional policy in which that portfolio is nested so badly that no one believes him, no one indeed is listening anymore, and no one who used to be a U.S. ally in the region trusts him any further than they can throw him. The list is long: the screwed-up-from-the-get-go Israeli-Palestinian dossier; the way the Iran deal was approached and the weak result as well; the premature exit from Iraq; the Libya debacle; the “non-strike incident” over the chemical weapons redline in Syria; the mixed signals and series of bad judgments over Egypt; misreading Erdogan; more recently the indulging of the Saudis in their stupid and dangerous war in Yemen; and one could go on.And so a second main conclusion leaps forth: No one, not even a President of the United States, can be solipsistically right in international diplomacy. No one can be effective in isolation, so even if Obama is mainly right on these “big” questions about terrorism, it hardly matters anymore. There is an important general lesson here: Getting the basics right does not ensure that somehow the details will take care of themselves. Some policymakers—and this goes for some Republican neoconservatives as well as for some starry-eyed Democratic liberal internationalists—like to live heroically. They like to ponder and pontificate, but they don’t really know much about implementation and they don’t particularly care. This is a big mistake. Details do not take care of themselves, nor somehow magically does the money always appear to pay for both sins of commission and omission.Allow me one epilogic comment I cannot resist. The President’s speech was a good speech insofar as speechwriting tradecraft goes, even if he delivered it without much spirit. It was short, pithy, and mostly clear. There was, however, one very weird sentence, at the end, that never should have made the final cut. “We were founded on a belief in human dignity—that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.”Okay, equal in the eyes of American law, yes. But equal in the eyes of God? How does Barack Obama or any other human being, even a credentialed theologian, know that? Pious Muslims do not believe that; they pretty much to a man and a woman hold that Islam is inarguably superior to all other religions. There are some Christian denominations, too, that hold, at least as far as eschatological matters are concerned, that all people—even all Americans—are not at all equal in the eyes of God; some are predestined for heaven but most are not. This is not the place to get into what Jefferson meant in the Declaration when he famously wrote about all men being created equal, but the President seemed to play very fast and loose with the Jeffersonian cadence. And when pious Muslims read those lines in Arabic or Farsi or Pushtu or Urdu translation, they will not be happy.
1Yes, Administration officials believed this at the time, but it was not true. See Alan Kuperman, “A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign,” International Security (Summer 2013).2It is not clear what Kaplan means by “very nearly all” but even the organization in charge of the operation, the OPCW, no longer believes that to be true—and I never believed it, as I repeatedly insisted in print at the time. On Monday, November 30, the Syrian regime declared that it had never used chemical weapons—an outright lie that led the EU representative to OPCW, Jacek Bylica, to say the following: “Many uncertainties regarding the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, notably the gaps and contradictions contained in Syria’s declarations. These uncertainties lead to doubts as to compliance by Syria with its obligations under the Convention, which makes it impossible to have confidence that its chemical weapons programme has been irreversibly dismantled.” Bylica quoted in Gulf in the Media, December 1, 2015. OPCW officials themselves expressed “grave concern” over the veracity of the Syrian declaration.