Obama Has the Speech, ISIS Has the Territory

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A man displays Iraqi army body armour in front of an Iraqi army vehicle and other items of military kit, at the Kukjali Iraqi Army checkpoint, some 10km of east of the northern city of Mosul, on June 11, 2014, the day after Sunni militants iincluding fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran the city. Half a million people were estimated to have fled Iraq's second largest city, as Islamist militants tightened their grip after overrunning it and a swathe of other territory, patrolling its streets and calling for government employees to return to work. 
AFP/Getty Images
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
June 24, 2014, 6:24 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama told us this would hap­pen. He even said U.S. policy should pre­pare for it.

Obama did not ne­ces­sar­ily see the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia com­ing or ima­gine its cross-bor­der pul­ver­iz­ing of Ir­aqi forces in Mo­sul and across much of north and west­ern Ir­aq. He didn’t see great swaths of Syr­ia and Ir­aq fall­ing in­to hands of Sunni rad­ic­als too bloodthirsty for al-Qaida. Nor did he see IS­IS fight­ers driv­ing U.S.-made mil­it­ary trucks and Hum­vees or fir­ing U.S.-made weapons with U.S.-made am­muni­tion.

The par­tic­u­lars eluded Obama. They eluded vir­tu­ally every­one who, after U.S. forces left Ir­aq, non­chal­antly watched Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki in­tensi­fy his auto­crat­ic and di­vis­ive ways in Bagh­dad, ali­en­at­ing Sunni and Kur­d­ish lead­ers and the towns and ter­rit­or­ies they rep­res­en­ted. Any crit­ic of Obama’s Ir­aq policy now (the spe­cif­ic griev­ance be­ing the lack of a U.S. re­sid­ual force of some un­defined num­ber — 10,000? 20,000? or 30,000?) must cred­ibly ex­plain how those troops would have re­dir­ec­ted Ma­liki’s ar­rog­ant and mis­trust­ful polit­ic­al en­er­gies to­ward con­sensus or in­clus­ive­ness. They wouldn’t have. Peri­od. To pre­tend so now, after the fact, is fantasy and folly. There’s no time for either. Ir­aq has had enough of both — its own and im­por­ted from Wash­ing­ton.

Wash­ing­ton stood by, col­lect­ively and with bi­par­tis­an in­dif­fer­ence, while Ma­liki stirred the hor­net’s nest of Sunni re­sent­ment. While IS­IS was for­ti­fy­ing it­self with equip­ment and sharpen­ing its fight­ing skills in Syr­ia, it si­lently stoked Sunni griev­ances in­side Ir­aq, of­ten at the loc­al level. When it pounced dur­ing the polit­ic­al trans­ition after Ir­aq’s most re­cent elec­tion, it routed a de­mor­al­ized Ir­aqi army and found com­mon cause with Sun­nis fed up with Ma­liki’s au­thor­it­ari­an boot and seri­al cor­rup­tion.

But Obama saw this lar­ger prob­lem com­ing and warned the storm clouds were gath­er­ing. At least he soun­ded like he did. In one of the meat­i­est and most im­port­ant mil­it­ary policy speeches of his pres­id­ency, Obama told the coun­try on May 23, 2013, that it must view the war on ter­ror­ism as a new con­flict — with seem­ingly ran­dom bat­tle­fields and dis­par­ate foes with loc­al ori­ent­a­tions and oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­na­tion­al am­bi­tions. The speech’s ven­ue was the Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity.

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“Amer­ica is at a cross­roads,” Obama said. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. What we can do — what we must do — is dis­mantle net­works that pose a dir­ect danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold.”

Obama then de­scribed threats out­side of Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq and the need for Amer­ica and its al­lies to nimbly re­spond.

“What we’ve seen is the emer­gence of vari­ous al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates. From Ye­men to Ir­aq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more dif­fuse, with al-Qaida’s af­fil­i­ates in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula — AQAP — the most act­ive in plot­ting against our home­land.

“Un­rest in the Ar­ab world has also al­lowed ex­trem­ists to gain a foothold in coun­tries like Libya and Syr­ia.”

As­pects of IS­IS’s ap­proach can be found in what Obama said next.

“Oth­er of these groups are simply col­lec­tions of loc­al mi­li­tias or ex­trem­ists in­ter­ested in seiz­ing ter­rit­ory. That means we’ll face more loc­al­ized threats … in which loc­al op­er­at­ives — per­haps in loose af­fil­i­ation with re­gion­al net­works — launch peri­od­ic at­tacks against West­ern dip­lo­mats, com­pan­ies, and oth­er soft tar­gets, or re­sort to kid­nap­ping and oth­er crim­in­al en­ter­prises to fund their op­er­a­tions.”

IS­IS or ISIL as it’s also known (Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and the Le­vant) could be de­scribed as an am­al­gam of all these ter­ror­ist threats — loc­al and re­gion­al, ideo­lo­gic­al and op­por­tun­ist­ic, meth­od­ic­al and crim­in­al, mil­it­ar­ist­ic and polit­ic­al.

“So that’s the cur­rent threat,” Obama said. “Leth­al yet less cap­able al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates; threats to dip­lo­mat­ic fa­cil­it­ies and busi­nesses abroad; homegrown ex­trem­ists. This is the fu­ture of ter­ror­ism. We have to take these threats ser­i­ously, and do all that we can to con­front them.”

It was an im­port­ant speech. It sought to define an end to the concept of post 9/11 war­fare and ex­plain the new battle space. It did all of those things. But it did not change policy. It did not take Obama’s stra­tegic and op­er­a­tion­al in­sights — of which there were many — and use­fully ap­ply them where they be­longed: Syr­ia. It is that battle-scarred coun­try and its ghastly three-year civil war that gave rise to IS­IS/ISIL and may give rise to lone-wolf ter­ror­ists who may wreak hav­oc later in Europe or the U.S. (something Obama also warned of — in a gen­er­ic sense — in the Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity speech).

The con­flict now ra­ging in Ir­aq and the ter­rit­ori­al gains of IS­IS/ISIL are of stu­pendous re­gion­al im­port­ance. Noth­ing on the map can com­pete with the po­ten­tially neg­at­ive con­sequences of a col­lapsed Ir­aq, an IS­IS/ISIL force con­trolling parts of Ir­aq and Syr­ia, armed to the teeth and fin­anced with mil­lions. This is all ima­gin­able now. It’s bey­ond a pity that what Obama said in 2013 roused neither him nor his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team to ap­ply its laud­able in­sights in Syr­ia or Ir­aq.

Obama’s speech was the best and worst of his pres­id­ency. It brimmed with nu­anced and thought­ful rhet­or­ic and offered a keen per­spect­ive on fu­ture threats and lof­ted many em­phat­ic words about new policies … and ac­com­plished pre­cisely noth­ing. The speech did not yield new and cre­at­ive think­ing with­in the Pentagon or State De­part­ment, at least that is evid­enced by any pro­duct­ive work pre­par­ing for or deal­ing with IS­IS/ISIL. It did not sens­it­ize the Obama team to the grow­ing men­ace—along an east-west con­tinuum in Syr­ia and Ir­aq—that might arise from the Syr­i­an civil war, Sunni mil­it­ancy, and Ir­aqi polit­ic­al griev­ance and ali­en­a­tion.

The acid test of this Obama speech must be IS­IS/ISIL. The speech asked the coun­try and Obama’s team to view the glob­al ter­ror­ism threat anew and to gath­er in­tel­li­gence—which the Kur­ds were try­ing to provide about IS­IS/ISIL, by the way—about per­ils un­fore­seen. Obama said it. It ought to have mattered in Syr­ia and Ir­aq. There’s scant evid­ence it did.

Even those who wish Obama well have noted a White House tend­ency to de­vote far more en­ergy to the de­vel­op­ment of a big speech than the fol­low-up to en­force or al­ter policy af­ter­ward. In the Obama White House, there’s al­ways an­oth­er big speech.

Obama is not the first pres­id­ent to find policy im­ple­ment­a­tion harder than rhet­or­ic­al flour­ish. But it bor­ders on mal­prac­tice that a speech as big as this one didn’t re­ver­ber­ate. More than most pres­id­ents, Obama knows words mat­ter. How much dif­fer­ent things might be now if Obama’s words had mattered to his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team months ago.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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