Degrading and Ultimately Dishonest: Obama Changes Nothing After Paris

November 16, 2015

Twice during his train wreck of a press conference this morning in Turkey, President Obama cited the prospect of American military casualties as a major part of his reason for not using U.S. ground troops against the Islamic State. Lecturing an openly skeptical press corps—and, by extension, critics he accused of "popping off" and trying to "sound tough" without actually proposing anything serious—he condescendingly pointed out that ground combat is a serious business. Troops "get killed, they get injured, they are away from their families."

As it happens, I talk to Marines I served with in Afghanistan all the time. I am sure there must be a few out there who don't want to take time "away from their families" in order to annihilate the Islamic State, risking death to do so, but I haven't heard from them. Marines have a word for this kind of thing. They call it their "job." (In fact, I know more than a few who have left the Corps because they concluded they weren't going to deploy to fight while Obama was still in office.)

In the press conference, Obama also said his top military advisers oppose ground action against the Islamic State. This might even be true: Obama fires military commanders who are too hawkish for him. It stands to reason that he appoints those who are going to be sympathetic to his views—officers who in some cases then suppress intelligence showing that the fight against the terrorists is failing.

Regardless, after a performance like today's, who would tell the president that ground action is needed? The man clearly doesn't want to hear it, just as he clearly doesn't want to entertain the possibility that there might be a middle course between his own demonstrably ineffective word-salad of a strategy and a re-enactment of the counterinsurgency campaigns of the last decade.

How embarrassing for editors who headlined stories over the weekend saying that Obama faces a "crossroads" or a "dilemma" after the Paris attacks. They haven't been paying attention. A hundred dead Parisians (which the president described as a "terrible and sickening setback") or Russians in Egypt, or scores in Beirut, certainly won't get him to change course. (Indeed, I wonder how Parisians felt when Obama opened his remarks in Turkey by citing the issues of economic growth, cyber threats, and climate change before broaching the topic of the attacks.) Moreover, those who are suggesting that the president has misjudged the terrorists in recent months are also off the mark. The administration knew that something like Paris was possible, and even likely. They know that it is possible on U.S. soil, too.

But they still won't change course. And if an attack occurs here, you can be sure they have already talked about the rhetoric they will employ to resist stronger military action even then. The last years of Obama's foreign policy have taken on the quality of a horror movie, where the dumb teenage characters insist on going to their doom despite the fact that all of us watching know what the consequence of their actions will be. Obama and his aides continue to spin and prevaricate in the face of reasonable questions, now coming from quite liberal journalists, about why the United States can't just destroy the Islamic State, and turn its members into "outlaws, dangerous and lethal, but hunted and on the run" rather than masters of a significant, resource-rich swathe of territory.

Obama says that when we take the terrorists seriously as a proto-state, we lose, and that if we went after them in Syria, there would be no end to it. The jihadists are surely delighted by his complacency and sense of helplessness, which keeps them alive and capable of killing more innocents.

From the very outset, Obama has been dishonest about his goals. The biggest take-away of his embarrassing assertion to ABC News just before the Paris attacks that the Islamic State had been contained was indicative of this, and went largely unnoticed by the press. His full comment to an incredulous George Stephanopoulos was, "Well, I don't think they're gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them." Now he tells us! In his announcement of action against the Islamic State in September, 2014, he never used the word "contain" in this respect, preferring the euphemistic construction "degrade and ultimately destroy," which he continued to use today, even now when everyone knows it is language intended to obscure the details of his plan, rather than to clarify them.

Pair this observation with the fact that today, in a flat, disdainful tone of voice, he opined that critics may not like his approach because he doesn't grow performatively emotional when he talks about terrorism, only then to grow visibly passionate when he got around to condemning Republicans, and you realize that the only challenge Obama really cares about is defeating his domestic opposition. Terrorism presents an obstacle mostly insofar as it empowers conservatives and hawks. He has a vision for the future, of a United States that is no longer the primary enforcer of world order, but a responsible partner among other nations combating a wide array of challenges, most critically climate change. He has accepted as a risk that the citizens of Paris, or of Washington, might be murdered in large numbers as he sees his strategy through.

But as the Islamic State continues to metastasize, and Americans begin to reject Obama's rhetoric, the president will find himself in a political dilemma. Even if Hillary tacks to the right on national security after her primary challenge is concluded, Obama's fecklessness could empower Republicans in 2016, thus risking his entire legacy. That, for Obama, would be a disaster.

Paris? That's only a "setback."