Obama’s Never-Ending Theater of War

• December 14, 2015 4:38 pm


Don't say the president hasn't altered his approach to fighting ISIS after Paris and San Bernardino. Something actually has changed: the president no longer uses the phrase "degrade and ultimately destroy," perhaps because too many Americans have concluded that it is an obvious rhetorical dodge, meant to sound toughish while allowing miles of wiggle-room. (Some of us pointed this out it the first time the president employed the phrase, way back in September of 2014.) Ever since Obama tried to reassure the nation before Thanksgiving, "degrade" has been out, replaced by plain old "destroy." So it also went with his widely-panned Oval Office address last weekend, and his listless, weird, faux-tough guy remarks at the Pentagon today.

If you are looking for evidence of any significant changes in strategy beyond this communications shift, there's not much to find. Indeed, the president has been pointed in his repeated insistence that his basic counter-ISIS strategy is sound, despite the fact that we are quite close to exactly where we started in September 2014 in terms of the group's core territorial holdings, and markedly worse off elsewhere due to ISIS's global metastasis in places like Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, not to mention the exploitation of Syria's instability by Putin.

Given that the president and his closest national security aides clearly see ISIS as posing, above all, a domestic political challenge, perhaps we shouldn't underestimate the significance of a change in their comms strategy. Too bad, though, that the president so obviously and profoundly loathes speaking about the issue.

The second before launching into his remarks today, for example, he emitted what one reporter aptly described as a "huge" sigh. His delivery of the remarks themselves, which, even if they didn't reveal any indication that anything was about to change (beyond Ash Carter traveling personally to the region to ask for more help from coalition partners, perhaps so these partners can have the pleasure of turning him down to his face) were certainly written to sound as though they were being delivered by a rootin', tootin', ‘Merica-loving hawk. The president went through a list of names of senior ISIS figures killed as a result of American action, and made much of territorial losses recently suffered by ISIS in Iraq. The troops were thanked, and there was no scolding talk about the threats posed to American values by overreacting about Islam.

Navigating this unfamiliar rhetorical terrain, Obama's tone veered between plain listlessness and brief surges when he seemed to remember that he was supposed to sound tough. Keep in mind that this is the politician who complained, during his train-wreck of a press conference in Turkey in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, that his critics have nothing of substance to say, and that, "Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference—because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough." Judging by the prepared text of today's remarks, it certainly sounds as though the White House has concluded that they are going to give the critics what they want: tough talk.

Too bad it isn't persuasive. And too bad, of course, that this isn't actually what the critics want. Critics get that the president's heart isn't in this. It's sad to see him pretend! It would be enough to see him concede the obvious, that the slow pace of progress against ISIS in Iraq, the lack of progress in Syria, and genuine backwards motion in Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan—not to say the destabilizing effects of the refugee crisis in Europe and the exploitation of the situation by Russia, means that the strategy needs to be changed. It would be enough to see him actually show a sense of urgency, rather than refer to one (as he did today) that clearly doesn't exist.

The president's never ending theater of war, in which we are meant to be impressed by numbers of airstrikes and bombs dropped and terrorist body counts and the fact that the president is attending meetings at the Pentagon in person (with no fewer than 34 other attendees, as the White House absurdly bragged to the press pool, as though the high number of attendees were somehow proportional to the seriousness of the affair), but not ask too many tough questions about actual results, is tiring and dispiriting. We don't want tough talk, Mr. President. We want to feel safe again, and we want to believe that our president isn't saying one thing to our faces and something else behind our backs.