On 10th September,
President Barack Obama of the United States gave a major speech at the White
House. The leit motiv was a new
American intervention in Iraq to fight the Islamic State.
Barack Obama delivers the
address about his decision to strike the Islamic State.
three different target audiences: the Americans, the Islamic State and the
Middle Eastern prospective allies.
Americans, the Congress and the public, were really the main target-audience,
which was expectable given that Obama’s war-theatre decisions tend to be
subsumed to his domestic political agenda.
Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t
erase every trace of evil from the world […]. That was the case before
9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant
as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the
Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their
own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the
starts giving the overall context of violence and upheaval in the Middle East,
before narrowing down on the target.
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of
innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been
Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not
a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken
advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both
sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor
by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and
simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists
are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. […]
And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim
Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Here’s the demonisation of the
prospective foe. The punch line is the reference to the beheading of two
Americans which is mentioned specifically to raise the dramatic effect, causing
revulsion and a desire for payback.
the first of these two paragraphs, the US President is concerned with the
possibility that the public will have an anti-Islam reaction to his lashing-out
at the Islamic State. To avoid this he makes two implausible claims. Actually the first one is outright
ridiculous: ISIL IS Islamic.
Obviously the vast majority of Muslims do not behave like the Islamic State
members, but they claim the Muslim faith, they practice it and fight on its
name, so they are Islamic, of the Salafist Jihadist type, but definitely
Islamic. The second one is very dubious
at best: the Islamic State controls a territory, a population, it has an army,
publishes legislation, collects taxes, administers justice (of their own kind),
uses force and it even has a flag. So
here are all the basics of what constitutes a state. The fact that no other
state recognises her statehood does
not make it disappear.
Our objective is
clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a
comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.
This is the goal the United States will be pursuing in
Iraq. Short, concise and clear.
First, we will conduct a
systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with
the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own
people, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.
Second, we will increase our
support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, I
deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can
best support Iraqi security forces. […]- we will send an additional 475
service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get
dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to
support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.
Third, we will continue to
draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL
attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut
off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its
warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the
Fourth, we will continue to provide
humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this
strategy is also clearly laid out and there are no surprises: air attacks;
intelligence and logistical support and no boots on the ground (although
there are already 1500 American troops in Iraq). The message is two-fold:
1- We are
providing a strong and firm response to this enemy.
2- We shall
do it in a safe way, from the air, so there will be no casualties and no
The crux of the
problem is, of course, to know if the reality will conform to the American
President’s wishes. It is obvious that many of these 1500 Americans will
see action to assist and guide the bombing campaign and the Iraqi army. I would
also say that the buck will not stop at this 1500 figure. Furthermore, plenty of experts are highly skeptical, to
say the least, as to the feasibility of destroying the Islamic State from the
air and with the locals fighting on the ground.
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.
Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military
assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I call on Congress again to
give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these
fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime
that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy
it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best
counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution
necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.
Herein lies a
conundrum for the USA. The Islamic State controls territory in Syria and
Iraq. Assuming you can destroy it in Iraq, that still leaves territory, troops
and equipment intact in Syria. So, you actually do not destroy it. However, in
Syria the environment is even more chaotic and hostile than in Iraq. Obama does
not want to cooperate with the Syrian government, so he risks seeing his assets
attacked when and if he intervenes in Syria. In Iraq the US can count on the
national army (for whatever it is worth), but not so in Syria. Finally, his so-called allies in the
fractured civil war Syrian landscape are weak and unreliable. So, going into
Syria is risky but ultimately necessary.
So this is our strategy. And […] America will be joined by
a broad coalition of partners. Secretary Kerry […] will travel across the
Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab
nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria, to drive
these terrorists from their lands. This is American leadership at its
best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally
other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.
In this part, Obama tries to portray a glorious endeavour
led by the United States, to make Americans feel proud of this project.
However, some of these allies and partners will be the ones doing the dirty and
risky work. Some may be less competent,
others less brave, others still a bit unpalatable, some totally so. We are
talking about Iraq’s Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga some of whom are trying to
carve a new country out of Iraq, the Shiite militias the US fought hard against
last decade, Syria and, last but not least, Iran.
Now, it will take time to
eradicate a cancer like ISIL. And any time we take military action, there
are risks involved […]. But I want the American people to understand
how this effort will be different from
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat
troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will
be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they
exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the
ground. This strategy of
taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front
lines, is one that we have successfully
pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the
approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who
threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible
to address broader challenges to international order.
This may be the trickiest paragraph of the speech. Obama
concedes it will take time. Some in the
administration talk about as long as 3 years. That sounds awkwardly like Iraq
1.0, like Afghanistan, like entanglement. Maybe that is why the President
rushes to add that this one will be different. Maybe that is why he never mentions
the W word: WAR.
In order to further underline the differences between
George W. Bush’s wars and Barack Obama’s “efforts” and “counterterrorism
campaigns”, he cites the same strategy that is being “successfully” used in
Yemen and Somalia. Unfortunately, these
“efforts” have been going on for years with no end in sight: nor to the
campaign, nor to Al-Qaeda in Arabia Peninsula, nor to Al-Shabbab. Unlike
what Obama tries to convey, these examples do not bode well for this new
It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared
chemical weapons so that they can’t pose a threat to the Syrian people or the
This is unrelated to the anti-Islamic State “effort”, but
I quote it because of the irony of trying to take credit for a Russian
initiative on the very same paragraph in which he bashes Russia over the Crisis
The last part of the speech is just a panegyric of the
United States greatness and exceptionalism (a concept to which Obama himself is
a late convert), so it is not too relevant. I just picked one last quote:
From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn
capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for
dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.
Well, where do capitals like Beijing, Teheran, Riyadh, Tripoli,
Baku, Rangoon, Khartoum, to quote a few, fit in that mantra?
Barack Hussein Obama has spoken. It must have been
difficult for him to make this speech since he has made a point of withdrawing
from the Middle East and from every and any conflict, regardless of their
importance (or lack thereof) to the United States.
I believe Obama took this decision more out of pressure than
conviction and so he forwarded a belated and belittled strategy with minimum
risk and much ado about allies, partners and international community. For
better or worse he crossed his little Rubicon. This war is his to win or loose.
No more Bush excuses this time around. Alea jacta est.
NOTE: This is the second post with the same format in which
there is an analysis of a major foreign policy speech. To check the first
Vladimir Putin on Crimea’s return to Russia:
“READING PUTIN”, 25th March 2014 at