09/10/2014 10:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Reluctant Warrior

Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Barack Obama has always been a reluctant warrior. It is, in fact, one of the big reasons he was elected, since America had turned away from the cowboy swagger of Bush and Cheney by 2008. Tonight, President Obama laid out the case for escalating a war we've already begun, in Iraq and Syria. He presented his plan to the public, and gave his reasons for why America should become more involved in the fight against the Islamic State (or, variously, ISIS or ISIL), and explained what America would and would not be doing in the coming months.

While Obama's address was a short one, clocking in at only 15 minutes or so, it covered a range of topics. He began by describing the enemy in the strongest possible language ("unique in their brutality"... "acts of barbarism") and flatly declared that they were "not Islamic... and not a state." He made the promise that America would "degrade and destroy" them, which is a much further step than Obama has previously committed to.

Obama pointed out the fact (which many Americans are only dimly aware of) that we've already carried out over 150 airstrikes within Iraq over the past month. The shooting has already begun, in other words, but it will now escalate. Obama also pointed out that -- in large part due to American pressure -- Iraq has now formed a new government and gotten rid of Maliki. This was a previously-stated precursor for Obama's speech tonight, since it was his explanation of why he hadn't acted more forcefully against the Islamic State before now. If Iraq is going to remain a single state (instead of fracturing into three), a more-inclusive government was absolutely necessary. Obama rightfully pointed to this as progress already made within Iraq. In doing so, Obama stressed that this "is not our fight alone" and that Iraqis will have to be the ones to fight for their own country on the ground.

Obama then itemized four facets to America's new counterterrorism strategy in Iraq and Syria. The first is airstrikes -- which will undoubtedly now ramp up in scale. Partly, this is due to some serious shortsightedness on the Pentagon's part (under both Bush and Obama) in not assisting the Iraqis in setting up their own air force at the end of our occupation of the country. Because Iraq effectively has no modern air force, America will now step into the role of being the Iraqi air force. Airstrikes were promised both within Iraq and across the border in Syria.

The second item on Obama's counterterrorism strategy was supporting troops on the ground -- but not American troops. He will be sending almost 500 more American soldiers to help the Iraqi ground troops, but Obama repeatedly stated that U.S. forces will not have any combat mission at all, merely support.

Third, Obama committed to stopping future attacks in many ways, by cutting off funding to them and stopping foreign fighters from entering the region. What went unmentioned here is the embarrassing fact that a lot of the money flowing to the Islamic State is coming from sources within some of what are supposed to be our closest allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, most prominently). Perhaps Obama is planning to use some diplomatic leverage to convince the leaders of these countries to police their own finances to cut off this flow of money from within their borders.

The last item on Obama's list was continued assistance to civilians, which is a pretty unobjectionable plan. This is how we rationalized first taking action in Iraq (to save civilians from ethnic or sectarian cleansing), in fact.

The rest of Obama's speech was pretty boilerplate in nature. Obama promised to lead "a broad coalition" of countries, but didn't actually mention any by name who have signed up -- nor specified what they'd be signing up for. Obama did warn that "it will take time," but never really stressed how long a timeline this fight might take. Obama took pains to point out how this war would be different from our previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (mostly, no ground troops), knowing that he was not exactly elected as a pro-war president (quite the opposite, in fact).

The president wove some "American values" into an argument for why he felt we needed to act, which got a bit disjointed when he went off on a few tangents about the greatness of America in general (fighting Ebola, etc.). Obama asked for public support towards the end of his speech, which polls show already exists in large part.

Obama's speech answered many questions tonight, but it also left a number unanswered. Obama danced around the issue of war powers, stating that he felt he already had the authority to do whatever he wanted militarily in both Iraq and Syria, but he also asked for Congress to get involved and show their own bipartisan support. This will likely mean Congress voting some money to support rebel fighters inside Syria, from all accounts.

The two biggest omissions from the speech were any costs involved (which could be unknown at this point, to be fair) and any mention of who will join the coalition. Obama has dispatched John Kerry to drum up support both in the region and beyond, so we will likely hear more about this in the coming days and weeks. Obama promised he's going to the United Nations soon, so perhaps that will be when coalition partners are announced. What will be key is which countries are on that list, and what they're going to be willing to do. Will they merely offer diplomatic support? Will they join in the military portion -- either in the air or on the ground? Will they be supporting the mission with cash?

Of particular note will be what Turkey (a NATO ally) will do, as well as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and the entire Arab League. Will they provide any soldiers for the mission? This problem is in their own backyards, after all, and many states in the region have accepted a whole lot of American military support over the years.

Also left unspoken was the fact that we're going to have some pretty strange bedfellows in this fight. By taking on the Islamic State within Syria, we will be helping Assad retain power -- this is unavoidable even if we simultaneously are supporting the "good" Syrian rebels. The situation in Syria isn't an "this side versus that side" civil war, it has multiple actors and multiple sides -- one reason America (and Obama) has stayed out of the mess so far. By attacking one side in this chaos, Assad will be able to concentrate his own military elsewhere. The other "enemy of my enemy" situation already exists, because by bombing the Islamic State fighters we are in essence providing air cover for militias from Iran who are also fighting the Islamic State. The Middle East is never uncomplicated, which can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.

President Obama has now committed the country to fighting another limited war. He has promised that America will not put combat troops on the ground in this conflict, which is indeed a big change from the last time we went to war in Iraq. He mentioned his airpower-only strategy has been working in two other countries, Yemen and Somalia, but he pointedly did not mention what is probably the closest parallel which can be drawn to his war plan -- what the United States did in Libya. We are going to bomb the Islamic State fighters from the skies to support troops on the ground who will capitalize on their air cover to retake land the Islamic State now holds. This may work to seriously disrupt their supply lines and their hold on small villages and towns, but it may be of limited use in retaking the large cities now controlled by the Islamic State.

Obama is trying to walk a very fine line between doing nothing and all-out war. He will be counting on others to do the ground fighting, which may depend on how much support America gets from regional allies. The end game of this limited warfare is going to be hard to see, however. Even if the coalition manages to push the Islamic State fighters out of Iraq, if they retreat to Syria it is going to be a lot harder to defeat them on the ground in the midst of a chaotic civil war. So while we may see some success in the short and medium terms, Obama may have just committed the country to a much longer campaign to not only "degrade" but truly "destroy" the Islamic State. President Obama did a decent job of laying out the overall goals in his speech tonight, but there are a lot of details that still need filling in. Hopefully, in the debates in Congress and the presentation to the United Nations, most of these details will be fully revealed.


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