Obama Speech: We are all to blame pt. 3

A couple of days ago President Obama gave a speech in which he described how he was re-engaging American military forces in Iraq to combat the growing terrorist threat from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

The President gave a decent speech, but the more I read it the more troubled I become about its context.

President Obama immediately says we need to “degrade and destroy” ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). He recounts the successes we’ve had in our war on terror (Killing Bin Laden, weakening Al-Qaeda leadership) and then he identifies ISIS as the new biggest threat.

ISIS is an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, although they were at odds with Bin Laden. They weren’t at odds with Bin Laden about creating an Islamic state, because that is the ultimate goal of most Islamic radicals. However, they were at odds about the timing. Bin Laden (and by extension Al-Qaeda) did not think the time was right to try and establish the Islamic State and ISIS always wanted it ASAP.

President Obama hits on this when he notes that ISIS “has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.” What he does not mention is that America was also complicit in the advent of sectarian strife in Iraq, not only as a result of the Iraqi war, but also as a result of America’s lack of commitment to the security situation in Iraq in the aftermath of the war. We also were unable to maintain adequate political influence over the now deposed prime minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki. This allowed Iran to influence the situation and coerce al-Maliki into fanning the sectarian flames.

If allowed to grow ISIS will become a future threat to the United States. The irony here is that Obama has somewhat adopted and enhanced President Bush’s doctrine. We are not engaging ISIS because of any imminent threat to the US homeland, but rather we are engaging them on the basis of preventive attack. This is not a new position by President Obama. The continued drone strikes and building up of our international security apparatus has not been because America faces any imminent threat, but rather because America is seeking out possible threats and preventing them. It’s not a new concept or debate, but this speech does push us further down that slippery slope.

President Obama states that this is not our fight alone, but America can make the “decisive difference.” If America can make the decisive difference then isn’t it primarily our fight? If we don’t fight and we can make the “decisive difference” then doesn’t that mean the Arabs we are seeking to “assist” will lose? President Obama says that it is up to the Arabs to secure their own region, but if they were great at securing their own region would they need us in the first place? How long will we have to engage there before they are ready? Furthermore, President Obama claims that he insisted Iraq form an inclusive government before we helped. This may be true rhetorically, but in reality we gave Iraq several years to complete this exact task and they have not yet been able to do it. Much of the blame for that has to do with al-Maliki and Iran, but Iran is still a major player in the area and is ostensibly acquiescing because they also view ISIS as a major threat. This situation is likely to change if and when America disengages.

President Obama emphasized that we will only use air power to defeat ISIS. But what do we do if air power is not sufficient? We must take a critical look at what happens if the forces we are supporting on the ground are not able to defeat ISIS.

It is disturbing that the Obama administration is subtly putting out the idea that if we simply commit air power and don’t put boots on the ground in the Middle East then we are not at war. The fact of the matter is America has been at war in the Middle East for 13 years now. We originally started fighting in Afghanistan and then foolishly opened a second front in Iraq. We discovered that we did not have the political will to occupy the lands we fought in and as a result we retrenched and limited our engagement to low level warfare (strategic drone strikes, counterintelligence, and special forces). We lowered our military footprint in the area which gave rise to ISIS, a threat which we either did not readily predict or did little to prevent. As a result, we are renewing our focus on the area with a compromise between putting “boots on the ground” and preventive counter terrorism measures by adding air power and trying to rally different groups in the Middle East. Will this be enough for us to change the tide of events?

President Obama stated that “our endless blessings bestow and enduring burden.” Leadership of the world is not an “enduring burden.” It is a responsibility that comes with the position of great privilege that America occupies. He went on to say that Americans “welcome their responsibility to lead.” But do they really? Have our leaders adequately and honestly explained what leadership of the world entails and what awaits us if we do not lead?

On his show “Last Word” Lawrence O’donnell asked why presidents keep choosing to fight in the Middle East. The answer is that it really doesn’t matter who is President, geopolitics trumps political preference and the geopolitical reality is that America acts as the de facto world police. We maintain the world order and seek to keep it stable. If we disengage from the world then it becomes more unstable and unpredictable. The alternative to American engagement is increased American isolationism. If we give up hope that international action can grant some measure of stability, we will begin to turn those energies toward building the type of airtight security state that stifles American freedom. I wish that one of our political leaders could explain this concept thoroughly to the American people. I also wish that we would be honest with ourselves about the consequences of our position.

For 13 years America has been trying to fight war on the cheap. At peak we had a little over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, when many more troops were needed if we were going to secure that area. We sent about 150,000 troops to Iraq when at least twice that number was needed to properly secure Iraq and rebuild the nation. War must be funded, yet we steadfastly stand against at least temporary raises in taxes and find ourselves incapable of addressing the fact that our tax system needs drastic reform. Instead we continually borrow money from China to support our war efforts. Simultaneously, we are cutting military spending although our military obligations are increasing. Whether it is “shock and awe” or “degrade and destroy”, the American people need to know that our role in the world comes at serious cost. It will require American lives to be put on the line in places that we know or care little about, because we are all connected and in this technological age a small handful of people can murder thousands in a short period of time. It will require American treasure, because wars cannot be fought and budgets cannot be balanced if funds are not raised and the only way to raise funds is through taxes and borrowing. Finally, it will require American ingenuity because our politics will have to rise above petty bickering which divides us along the lines of class and race. America is the leader of the world, and we must realize that the best we can do is also the best the world can do. We must rise to meet the challenge.