Beheadings of two Americans put ISIS into Americans' consciousness
Obama must explain to public the threat ISIS presents
The President must also lay out what his strategy is for eliminating the ISIS threat
Consider tonight’s speech by President Barack Obama to be the antidote to his now-infamous comments two weeks ago that his administration lacks a strategy for combating ISIS in Syria.
The beheadings of two Americans – journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff – have propelled ISIS into the center of the American public consciousness. The group is no longer a distant, local threat, but an immediate threat to American lives. Obama knows he must now give a comprehensive answer to this threat.
Is ISIS a threat to the U.S.?
First, he will need to explain to Americans to what degree ISIS threatens U.S. national security.
The administration’s current assessment is that, for now, it is principally a threat to the region, as well as to American diplomats, soldiers and other personnel based in Iraq. However, the U.S. intelligence community believes ISIS also threatens U.S. interests outside the region, including in the U.S. homeland.
Intelligence officials tell me that while ISIS is focused on strengthening the Islamic state, or caliphate, in Syria and Iraq, this does not mean its aspirations end there. ISIS is believed to be encouraging the many foreigners now fighting for it (including about a dozen Americans) and other sympathizers to carry out attacks in the West when they return home.
When I asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week whether ISIS is a threat to the U.S. today or some day down the road, he said the administration doesn’t have the luxury of making that distinction.
“We can’t take a chance, Jim, on saying, ‘Well, let’s technically define this – is it a real threat today or tomorrow, or is it going to be in six months?’ ” Hagel said. “That’s the way the threats don’t work in little, neat boxes and emanate on our time frame. They emanate on their time frame. We know they’re a threat. We know they’re brutal. We know that they are, as I’ve said, as others have said, something that we’ve never seen before.”
What’s Obama’s strategy?
Second, the President will need to lay out in detail his strategy for dealing with ISIS. This follows another confusing rhetorical moment for the White House.
Officials including the President now say the goal is “degrading and destroying ISIS,” but only after the President indicated last week that his goal may be simply to make ISIS a more “manageable” threat.
Now that the goal is to defeat ISIS, exactly what steps will the President order to accomplish that? Sources tell CNN he is “open to” ordering airstrikes inside Syria. And Hagel told me in our interview that the Pentagon has already presented him with military options to do so.
We also now know that the President is asking for so-called Title X authority to arm and train Syrian rebel groups. However, the President has said, and will likely repeat tonight, that military action alone will not accomplish his goals. He needs an international coalition, particularly involving regional states directly involved in the conflict. He needs a more inclusive government in Iraq. And he needs a continuing and broad humanitarian mission to serve the many Iraqis and Syrians that ISIS is driving from their homes, starving and murdering.
How long will this fight last?
Finally, Obama will need to explain to Americans how long and how intense this new war will be. He campaigned on ending the long American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until very recently, his administration continued to emphasize that Americans are war-weary and that the administration was loathe to bring the nation back to war, short of very direct threats to U.S. interests.
Remember the administration’s – also infamous – mantra “Don’t do stupid stuff” as the driving force of the President’s foreign policy. Now, the President is taking the nation back to war. For how long? How costly will it be?
As a candidate in 2007, he famously called Iraq “a dumb war.” Why won’t this war be dumb?