President Obama’s address on battling ISIS, the details of which were carefully leaked, raises a question that has dogged his six-year tenure:
Is he again leading from behind, or is he carefully calibrating the public mood?
Minutes before 6:30 p.m., the White House press office sent out excerpts from the speech—precisely timed for the network newscasts—in which Obama vowed that “America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” using air power to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.
The gist of the address had already been leaked to the Wednesday morning papers. “President Obama is prepared to authorize airstrikes in Syria, a senior administration official said on Tuesday,” the New York Times reported.
“President Obama is prepared to use U.S. military airstrikes in Syria as part of an expanded campaign to defeat the Islamic State and does not believe he needs formal congressional approval to take that action, according to people who have spoken with the president in recent days,” said the Washington Post.
In short, amid a wave of bleak polls and negative headlines, a president who prided himself on getting out of wars had to convince a public that is both war-weary and increasingly worried about ISIS that, well, he has a strategy. It is to fight a counter-terrorism war while assuring Americans that “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq”—and avoiding seeking explicit approval from Congress.
So is this, at long last, leadership?
The media had much to do with creating a surge in public support for military action. This was best exemplified by a Washington Post/ABC poll that found more than two-thirds supporting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and nearly two-thirds backing airstrikes in Syria—a big jump from just three weeks ago.
This is in part because of the constant drumbeat about ISIS, and in particular the horrifying videos of the beheading of journalists Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff—images that played on television day after day. That story, according to Pew, was followed by an astonishing 94 percent of the public, and of course it was unnerving. And whether or not ISIS has the power to strike the “homeland”—Obama indicated that at least some Americans could be in jeopardy--people feel less safe. Perhaps the administration’s own talk about the ISIS threat contributed as well.
Many pundits fault Obama for not acting against Syria a year ago, when he drew and then punted on the “red line” against chemical weapons. That was clearly a botched moment. But would the public have supported airstrikes at that time? When the president said he would seek approval on the Hill, it was obvious that Congress wouldn’t support him.
It is hard, as we learned in Vietnam and again in Iraq, to wage a war with dwindling support back home.
Even Obama’s critics would acknowledge that the Middle East situation is tricky: how to crush ISIS in Syria without helping Bashir Assad, relying on shaky partners in Iraq and joining in an uneasy de facto alliance with Iran.
Now that he’s taking a major stride toward what the hawks have been demanding—trying to mobilize a global coalition against ISIS—how did the pundits react?
The tone was tepid. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews questioned the strategy: “I didn’t hear in the speech how we are going to do that…It didn’t sound sufficient.”
While NBC’s Chuck Todd was mildly surprised by “a pretty bold case for American interventionism,” he said that “opening the Pandora’s box of Syria is going to be a great challenge for him and probably the next president.”
Fox’s Brit Hume questioned why Obama insists on “announcing ahead of time” what he will not do, such as sending ground troops, since if this strategy falls short, “where does that leave us?”
CNN’s Newt Gingrich praised the president for citing the “real risks” involved, adding that “if all of us understand this is a threat to America…we’re going to be a much stronger country.”
But Fox’s Kirsten Powers said Obama should have given this speech a month ago: “This president has a history of being very slow to come around on things like this.”
Some reactions crossed ideological lines. Both Fox’s Bret Baier and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said that Yemen and Somalia, which Obama cited as the counter-terrorism model he has in mind, can hardly be considered successes.
To be sure, Obama took his time getting to last night’s speech. He is at best a reluctant warrior. The question is whether any of this rhetoric will matter six months or a year from now, when the U.S. will either be on its way toward degrading and destroying ISIS or falling measurably short.