from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Obama Speech About ISIS: Giving Himself An "A"

September 11, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

Syria

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Iraq

There is too much one could say about the President’s speech last night to fit in a blog post, but there are a couple of items worth noting.

I was struck by the President’s unacknowledged turnaround on the Syrian rebels. Just weeks ago, the notion that they might be worth helping was a "fantasy." Here is an excerpt from the Thomas Friedman interview of August 10th, just a month ago.

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

What happened? Did the "pharmacists" suddenly become ferocious fighters? In fact the President’s comments a month ago were nasty and inaccurate: many of the rebels were from Syrian Army units that defected, many more were former conscripts with Army service, and all had proven themselves willing to fight both the regime and ISIS for years now without serious American help. They deserved better than the President’s sarcasm. Now he wants to back them, but never bothered to explain what has changed-- or to admit that he had simply been wrong. In fact we know that Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry, CIA Director Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Panetta urged the President to do more in Syria. He rejected their advice; he was wrong; he has now reversed himself--without admitting it, of course.

I was also struck by one key aspect of his calculations. On the one hand, he says ISIS constitutes such a threat that we must bomb them ourselves, send hundreds of soldiers to the region, spend $500 million training and equipping Syrians to fight them, arm the Iraqis and the Kurds, and create a large (we hope, anyway) international coalition. On the other hand, he wasn’t willing to act until Iraq had a new and workable government. Why? If ISIS is such a threat, who cares if Iraq has a terrific government or a terrible one; we still need to fight these terrorists. It’s worth adding that Iraq really doesn’t have a new government yet, and several key cabinet positions including minister of defense are still being fought over. Still Mr. Obama moved forward. It just doesn’t compute.

Once again he seems to have changed his mind, but won’t explain that to the American people. It seems that admitting error, or even just saying there are new facts that changed his view, is impossible.

On the contrary, his is the best U.S. foreign policy you can imagine, and we know this because he told us so last night in describing his actions:

This is American leadership at its best.

So, he gave himself an "A." Compare what George W. Bush did when his strategy in Iraq was failing. In January 2007 he explained himself to the American people candidly:

When I addressed you just over a year ago, nearly 12 million Iraqis had cast their ballots for a unified and democratic nation. The elections of 2005 were a stunning achievement. We thought that these elections would bring the Iraqis together and, that as we trained Iraqi security forces, we could accomplish our mission with fewer American troops. But in 2006, the opposite happened....The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.

President Obama would be better able to gain and keep the support of the people, and the Congress, if he were more candid about mistakes he had made and changes in his strategy. Giving himself top marks will not do it.

 

 

More on:

Syria

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Iraq

Up
Close