They say Americans don’t vote on national security issues. (You don’t have to take my word for it; even former U.N. ambassador and leader of the “Be Very Afraid” caucus John Bolton said so.) So, what was Barack Obama doing when he became the fourth consecutive U.S. president to go on primetime television to announce military action in Iraq?
Wait, what? Apples and oranges, you say? This was a speech about foreign policy in its own right, not electioneering — that’s what you’re going with?
O.K. Maybe. But let’s look at the speech a bit anyway.
First, this new four-point strategy — what is the president saying he will do differently?
“First,” Obama said, “we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” But that is exactly what the U.S. is already doing; the president touted it in this very speech, just paragraphs earlier.
“Last month, I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances,” Obama said. “Since then, we have conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq.”
“Second,” POTUS continued, “we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.”
Also not new; also mentioned in the Wednesday address: “In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces.”
Yes, Obama said he will now deploy several hundred more “service members,” and the escalation should not go without notice, but that is what this is — mission creep, not a policy pivot.
The president also said the U.S. will aid Kurdish forces — something the administration stepped up over the summer — and “support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units.”
I know it’s been a long war, but was that not in the works for, say, the last dozen years?
And, as for having “ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition,” as Obama added under this same point, is this after backing off the military assistance to rebels that has in some cases fallen quite neatly into the hands of the Islamic State, or is this just a re-calculation of who the U.S. identifies as “the good rebels?” And how is this different from the administration’s June request for $500 million to outfit and train non-IS Syrian rebels?
“Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.” Come on! This point has the not-new-ness baked right in! “We will continue ...” followed in the next sentence by “we will redouble.”
And the same can be said for point number four: “we will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.” Again, already happening, and, of special note here, there is no language that says this effort will be “ramped up.”
Even the point most observers are calling the big policy announcement in this address — airstrikes on IS inside Syria — wasn’t actually part of the speech.
“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
“I will not hesitate to take action” is not the same thing as “I have taken action,” or “I will take action.” The president very well might, but, then again, he might not. Airstrikes in Syria are far more complicated, for both political and logistical reasons, than what has already been done in Iraq. Striking inside Syria will take a lot of under-the-table conversations, and a lot of on-the-ground intelligence and military intervention.
For all those reasons and more, the U.S. hasn’t flown sorties inside Syrian space yet, and may not even want to in the future. Hesitation, actually, might not only be on tap, it might turn out to be prudent.
So, what has changed? What justified, in the eyes of this White House, a national primetime address?
FoPol faux pas?
Some 47 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is less safe now than it was before the attacks of September 11, 2001, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s up from 28 percent just last year (and, interestingly, the number was just 20 percent one year after the attacks, in 2002). Just 26 percent say the country is safer now than 13 years ago.
As to why, pollsters point to IS, and specifically to the Islamic State’s broadcast beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
A “whopping 94 percent of Americans say they have heard about the news of the beheaded journalists — higher than any other news event the NBC/WSJ poll has measured over the past five years.” That’s at least 15 percent higher awareness than the 2011 debt ceiling debate, the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 or Oklahoma’s grisly 43-minute execution in April.
A new CNN/ORC International survey shows 53 percent of Americans think it likely the U.S. will be hit by acts of terrorism around the 9/11 anniversary, up from 39 percent in 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Pair those numbers with the 61 percent who now favor military action against IS, up from the mere 21 percent that favored military action against Syria’s government a year ago, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was reported to have used chemical weapons on his own people.
Throw in the all-time low of 32 percent who now say they approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, the 18-point advantage now held by Republicans on the question of which party best deals with foreign affairs (up from a 7-point spread a year ago) and 38-percent edge the GOP has on who’s stronger on national defense (a 10-year high), and it seems all too clear: The president had to act ...
... to help Democrats ...
... before the November midterm elections.
How else to explain the whole of this speech? Not just the timing, not just the four points of sameness, but almost the entire last three minutes of the address. In fact, the repeated references to what seemingly half the Twitter-verse typified as “American Exceptionalism” not only served to alienate a broader audience, it thoroughly muddied the foreign policy message.
There were no mentions of the politically hot country of Iran, even though Iran will play a major role in any moves against IS, and even though it should be seen as a diplomatic success that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has publicly agreed to co-operate with the U.S. in this fight.
But there were multiple references to Somalia and Yemen, two countries where the U.S. is waging mostly remote-controlled counter-terror operations with dubious results and a limitless timetable.
And there were multiple references to the formation of a new government in Iraq, as if this were an event Americans recognize as a triumph, and as if this were something universally recognized as fully realized or particularly different from the past regime.
And then there was all of this:
“Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression,” Obama remarked, without so much as batting an eye at the seeming non sequitur. “Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the grueling work required to bounce back — America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.”
The president continued, “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.” And Obama went on, “Despite all the divisions and discord within our democracy, I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day — and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future.”
“Seize the future?” Unmatched universities? Thriving auto industries? Job creation? “Grit, determination and common goodness?”
There is actually more, tossing in Ebola, Russian “aggression” and Ukraine tensions, and looping back to “the fight against terrorism” before heading for the big finish with the Kipling-esque “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.”
It is wonder the White House camera crew didn’t drown out the president with chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.”
A man, a plan, a question
It would be nice to take away from this that the president sought to remind the American people that the country’s strength really lies in what is called “soft power” — the influence and effect of a robust economy and a positive popular culture — but if that was the case, Obama buried the lede. The “four-point plan” was not about any of this feel good, rah-rah stuff.
What the plan was about, to any Americans who happened to listen, was to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State through a sustained (read: open-ended) counter-terrorism campaign. After all, the president quite literally called that the “objective.”
But what the speech was about may have been as counterproductive to Obama’s election-season goals as previous counter-terrorism moves have been against the variety of incarnations of regional non-state enemies.
Americans don’t usually vote on national security issues because Americans don’t usually think about international affairs. The only hope for politicians who want to make problems beyond U.S. borders big campaign issues is to drown out domestic concerns with fevered talk and fervent threats.
That was clearly the intent of the scaremongering digital ad campaign launched today by John Bolton’s super-PAC. The ad, targeted at seven states with contested Senate races, crosscuts between violent mob scenes and pictures of Obama, imploring viewers to “Vote as if your life depended on it.” Bolton has eyes on a 2016 presidential run and knows he doesn’t have much to brag about when it comes to, say, job creation or women’s issues.
In that way, Bolton finds himself in the same boat as most Republican candidates this election cycle. A campaign about foreign policy is all many could wish for. It is not a stump speech most Democrats are looking to make, however.
Which is why Obama’s Wednesday speech should stump communications consultants and electoral handicappers on both sides of the aisle. Asserting the primacy of a foreign threat, but doing so in a campaign-like context, and with a muddy rallying cry, seems like the perfect way to get Americans to forget their hopes and vote their fears.
And for a Democratic Party lead by a Commander-in-Chief that once branded his entire presidential run with “hope,” that’s a reason to be very, very afraid.