Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Pep Talk for the Ages, This Wasn’t

Why President Obama's war cry doesn’t quite measure up to his predecessors'.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's address to the nation last night sought to explain his strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State (IS) and, more importantly, imbue a sense of confidence that has been missing from his leadership for months or maybe years.

While the president hit all the requisite talking points to build the case for a stepped-up war in Iraq and Syria, his powers of persuasion were impaired by two points he left out: the nasty reality of the America's last 13 years of engagement in the Middle East, where chaos has yielded only to more of the same; and his own oft-spoken skepticism about whether U.S.-led military intervention can provide a lasting solution to global conflicts.

Obama talked a good game about the indispensability of American leadership. Yet his call to war evinced a sober appreciation that today's conflicts don't have beginnings, middles, or ends, but rather a wearying parade of unpredictable phases that amount to a perpetual endurance test rather than an opportunity for triumph.

President Barack Obama’s address to the nation last night sought to explain his strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State (IS) and, more importantly, imbue a sense of confidence that has been missing from his leadership for months or maybe years.

While the president hit all the requisite talking points to build the case for a stepped-up war in Iraq and Syria, his powers of persuasion were impaired by two points he left out: the nasty reality of the America’s last 13 years of engagement in the Middle East, where chaos has yielded only to more of the same; and his own oft-spoken skepticism about whether U.S.-led military intervention can provide a lasting solution to global conflicts.

Obama talked a good game about the indispensability of American leadership. Yet his call to war evinced a sober appreciation that today’s conflicts don’t have beginnings, middles, or ends, but rather a wearying parade of unpredictable phases that amount to a perpetual endurance test rather than an opportunity for triumph.

Obama’s speechwriters were mindful that last night’s remarks would be heard in the context of previous presidential primetime remarks on the use of force.

These announcements follow a fairly set script. The setting invokes the trappings of American power, the cameras look straight on. The tone is somber (and so is the suit). The message is intended for many audiences: an anxious American public summoned to their living rooms; a bureaucracy whose feverish deliberations now need to give way to rapid action; troops who need to head to battle feeling venerated and valued; an enemy that has resisted intimidation and must be convinced the hard way to submit. In short, the president needs to explain why he’s leading the nation into battle, but also inspire them to see the job through to a successful finish.

George H.W. Bush’s speech at the start of military operations to eject Iraq from Kuwait, Bill Clinton’s announcements of strikes on the regime of Saddam Hussein and the attack on Serbian troops in Kosovo, George W. Bush’s remarks at the start of the Afghan and Iraq wars and Barack Obama’s address to the nation on military operations in Libya all share certain common elements.

For Obama, ticking many of the boxes covered by his predecessors in justifying acts of war — the evil enemy, global support, international legitimacy, congressional approval — was simple enough. He called out IS for its "brutality" and "barbarism." While Turkey and Saudi Arabia are wobbly for their own internal reasons and China still sits comfortably in the spectator gallery watching global threats from afar, he also made clear to note that the action would have "a broad coalition of partners."  The desperate pleas for help from the Iraqi government, such as it is, blunt the usual concerns over unwanted American military meddling. Whereas many presidential war proclamations — H.W. on Iraq, George W. on Afghanistan, Clinton on Iraq, and Obama on Libya — reference some form of U.N. imprimatur as a stamp of legitimacy, last night’s speech didn’t have to. More so than at any time in recent memory, the justification for U.S. engagement — the Islamic State’s encroachment on Iraqi territory and its murderousness make the case on their own. Faced with the videotaped beheadings of American journalists, even the U.S. Congress is suddenly tripping over itself to seem tough on IS; to get behind — if not ahead of — the president.

In augmenting his explanation with inspiration, Obama faced a more daunting task. In the recent past, presidents have spoken about how their missions are essential to U.S. national interests, while proclaiming that military action would better the lives of peoples worldwide: Clinton said his Kosovo operation would "defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results." They have sketched visions of the world to come once the United States has prevailed: The speech announcing Operation Desert Storm is where George H.W. Bush proffered the hope of a "new world order — a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations." And they situate the difficult and risky action in the context of larger, more positive trends: in attacking Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Obama said that he "welcome[d] the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way."

This time, however, Obama said nothing to suggest that targeted U.S. operations against the Islamic State will deliver peace or prosperity in the Levant; nor would anyone have believed him if he had. The best he could offer was the prospect of ongoing war along the lines of what the United States has waged in Somalia and Yemen — not exactly a bright prospect. With the promise of the Arab Spring in Egypt fully extinguished, Libya engulfed in sectarian war, Syria a killing field, and Iraq in extremis, the bracing truth is that even if IS is defeated, it could be followed by something even worse. After all, as Obama all but said, that’s what happened when al Qaeda finally began to give way.

Re-reading the speeches of Obama’s predecessors is a solemn reminder that many predictions of bright post-war futures have proven wildly optimistic: Twenty-three years after George H.W. Bush expressed his "hope that Iraq will live as a peaceful and cooperative member of the family of nations" the words sound hopelessly naive. Bill Clinton held out hope of "a new Iraqi government — a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people." In his Afghan speech, George W. Bush waxed that American soldiers would vindicate "the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people" — hopes that remain out of reach 13 years later. Obama’s own goal of a Libya "that belongs not to a dictator but to its people" has proven similarly elusive.

Twenty-first century wars have proven determinedly indeterminate. They evolve, intensify and abate, but — at least in the Middle East — don’t seem to definitively end. Obama implicitly admitted that fact, depriving listeners of the reassurance of calm to come, but at least coming to grips with a truth that presidents have sidestepped for too long.

The end of Obama’s speech was a rousing manifesto of the vitality of American leadership, hailing the United States as the world’s savior against the likes of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Ebola. It seemed calculated to answer critics who have despaired of the administration’s lack of faith in America’s power and future.

Yet less than four months ago, during his commencement speech at West Point, Obama decried the idea that "America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos." In fact, barely a month ago, Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said, "There are no military solutions to the very difficult problems that exist in Iraq…. The only solution that exists is an Iraqi political solution."

It is hard to fathom that in such a short space of time, Obama’s faith in the power of U.S. military engagement spiked dramatically. The more plausible scenario is that the president continues to harbor all his doubts about the efficacy of complex, faraway military operations which depend on uncertain partners. But in the face of the threat from IS — and plainly seeing that no other institution or nation will face up to it alone — Obama has been forced to lead, if not from behind than by process of elimination.

Obama’s pep talk — touching on the rebound of American automakers and the fracking boom — focused less on the Iraq operation itself than on American leadership, writ large. While he didn’t reference a crisis of confidence, nor Jimmy Carter’s dreaded malaise, no other president in recent memory has used a speech aimed to rally the nation to war to recite the very basics that make America formidable and strong. It is not clear who needed convincing more, the American people or Obama himself.

Obama entered office wanting to be known for leading the American people out of war. But events have led a reluctant president in the opposite direction. Rather than the inspiring but elusive visions his predecessors offered of Middle East interventions that would purvey peace and prosperity, last night Obama did not pretend that this latest war will end all wars. As he nears the home stretch of his administration, rather than ending wars, the more achievable legacy for Obama may be to help Americans accept and adapt to conflicts that endure, evolve, and perhaps ebb — but may never fully end.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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