But This Threatiness Goes to 11…

The commander in chief lays out his justification for the war in Syria and Iraq.

Saul Loeb/ AFP
Saul Loeb/ AFP
Saul Loeb/ AFP

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. For Immediate Release: September 25, 2014.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. For Immediate Release: September 25, 2014.

Remarks by the President after the U.N. Security Council Summit on Foreign Terrorist Fighters.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations. New York, NY

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My fellow Americans, the Middle East today is frighteningly full of threatiness.

What, you ask, is threatiness? As my good friend Mr. Stephen Colbert will surely understand, threatiness is to threat as truthiness is to truth. By this, I mean that sometimes we cannot articulate why something is a threat, or offer evidence, but we still think it just feels, you know, threaty. We know it in our gut. And let me be clear: When there is enough threatiness floating around, America must take action.

As you know, taking action is something I do only in situations of the utmost gravity and urgency. That is why I waited for more than three years to take action in Syria. For years, I observed the Syrian situation growing worse and worse for Syria’s embattled civilians. But though I observed numerous threats, all those threats were to the Syrian people — and as I reminded you, "We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force." As far as our great nation was concerned, I could see no imminent threatiness.

Nonetheless, some of you may recall that the situation in Syria edged perilously close to threatiness a year ago, when the Assad regime’s brutal military forces used chemical weapons to kill civilians even deader than they had been previously killed with conventional weapons. My fellow Americans, if one is going to draw red lines at all, one must draw them arbitrarily. And when one’s arbitrary red line has been crossed not just once but repeatedly, one faces a situation of grave threatiness.

I responded to last year’s threatiness as any responsible commander in chief would have: I informed the world of my readiness to take action, then tossed that hot potato right back over to Congress. Let me tell you, things were getting sticky there for a while — but thanks to Vladimir Putin, who, incidentally, needs to stop his aggression in Ukraine right this second, we were able to reduce the threatiness level all around by getting Assad to give up those chemical weapons that hadn’t yet been used to kill people and go back to killing people in more acceptable ways, through the use of thermobaric explosives and 240 mm mortar rounds.

For a time, all was again well for everyone except the Syrians. The imminent threatiness to my credibility had receded. In Iraq, a peaceful parliamentary election appeared to bode well for future stabilityness and democracyness, and I was even able to remind the world that unlike Putin — who really needs to cut that shit out in Ukraine — America is not the kind of country that uses military force for nefarious purposes. In Iraq, I noted, the United States "did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain." No: "We ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign state."

That brings me to our current situation. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is now far safer than it was in, say, 1943, or during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Still, we cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to pose renewed dangers to us all.

That is why I began to warn you, some months ago, of the extreme threatiness posed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which bulldozed its way through the sovereign Iraqi Army’s armyness in a stunningly short time, and soon began to demonstrate that just like Assad’s forces, it too could kill people in entirely inappropriate ways. Here, I am of course speaking of beheadings, which, like chemical weapons, make people dead in the wrong way entirely.

Agonizing though it is to our generous hearts and delicate sensibilities, we Americans can tolerate a world in which innocents are ripped to shreds by gunfire, blown to bits by bombs, or left mangled and mutilated by these terrible yet lawful weapons. We cannot, however, stand idly by while innocent people are beheaded, because beheadings are just gross. They are also barbaric — except when carried out by our allies, the Saudis, who at least have the good sense not to brag about their state-sanctioned beheadings on YouTube.

I and other members of my administration therefore took great pains to communicate the Islamic State’s threatiness to you, the American people, although of necessity we had to speak of this in ways both alarming and nonspecific. Thus, my secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, informed you that the Islamic State is "an imminent threat to every interest we have … beyond anything we’ve seen," and State Department officials have described it as "worse than al Qaeda." True, we have no specific evidence that the Islamic State has either the intent or the ability to attack us here in our homeland, but as I told you a few weeks ago, the Islamic State terrorists are "unique in their brutality" and general scariness. Someday, I warned, maybe, they "could" pose a growing danger beyond Syria and Iraq, and perhaps eventually even to the United States. They could even, I warned, someday "try" to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks. 

If that is not threatiness, I don’t know what is, and I met it with the strength and resolve you expect from your president. 

O America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden! Yet we welcome our responsibility to lead. 

That is why I have steadfastly declared that we will absolutely not address this threatiness by placing American boots on the ground. Instead, we will bomb the heck of out the Islamic State, even if that means kinda sorta violating international law by using force inside Syria. But why be a stickler for doing things legally when it is possible to do them legalishly?

As it happens, in the two weeks since I declared my intent to take action, we also discovered that the Islamic State was not the only source of threatiness in Syria. Far from it! Unbeknownst to you, and unfortunately also unbeknownst to me until about a week ago, there was yet another organization of surpassing menace in Syria. 

No, it is not the regime of Bashar al-Assad (that threatiness was so 2013). And no, I do not speak of al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda-aligned Syrian rebels, nor even of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist group that recently used armed drones to attack al-Nusra Front. (Yes, I know, it’s confusing. Just remember: They’re all threaty.)

But America has bigger fish to fry, and the name of that fish is the Khorasan Group.  

Let me be clear: Though neither you nor I know the first thing about the Khorasan Group, it is entirely possible this sinister and mysterious organization poses even more imminent threatiness than the Islamic State. And you can rely on that, because several unnamed administration officials said so to the New York Times and went on TV, too. In fact, even my director of national intelligence, Gen. James Clapper, has stated clearly and unequivocally that the Khorosan Group is "potentially" yet another threat to the homeland, and "may" pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.

I rest my case. If that is not threatiness, I don’t know what is. That’s why we’re bombing them too, whoever they are. 

As I told the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, we now stand at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope. Yet we will not lose heart, for we are guided in our foreign policy by the wise words of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." That is what we will now do.

My fellow Americans, let me once again be clear: We will eradicate this cancer of threatiness, wherever it may be found and whoever is at the root of it, regardless of whether we have any real idea of what we’re doing, regardless of whether eradicating one form of threatiness increases another form of threatiness, and as long as we don’t have to commit any boots to the ground in this most profoundly important of all efforts. 

May God bless our troops, absolutely none of whom will be sent into combat, and may God bless the United States of America.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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