A tragedy in three acts.
Chicago, October 2002. The scene is an anti-war rally. Senator BARACK OBAMA enters from STAGE LEFT. He is young and handsome, and the crowd cheers as he approaches the podium.
What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war…. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
Now let me be clear — I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people…. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors… [And] I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East…
The White House, nine years later. OBAMA looks older, but contented.
As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year…. The last American soldier[s] will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success…. That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.
The tide of war is receding…. We’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership. When I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in both these wars. And by the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and make no mistake: It will continue to go down.
The Oval Office, early September 2013. The room is dimly lit, and OBAMA sits slumped at his desk, his eyes closed. In the background, a cacophony of voices can be heard.
Voice of TELEVISION NEWS ANCHOR:
Syria is falling apart. The death toll in the nation’s brutal civil war now exceeds 100,000 —
Voice of NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR SUSAN RICE:
Assad’s forces loaded warheads filled with deadly chemicals … and launched them into suburbs controlled or contested by opposition forces —
Voice of AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. SAMATHANA POWER:
This was a uniquely monstrous crime — there are lines in this world that cannot be crossed —
Voice of VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:
We’ve set a clear red line —
Voice of SENATOR JOHN McCAIN:
We’ve allowed Assad to massacre people and we’ve done nothing about it.
Voice of WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF DENIS McDONOUGH, breaking through the rest:
Mr. President, maybe we should take a walk.
The Oval Office, a little later. PRESIDENT OBAMA enters from STAGE RIGHT.
My fellow Americans … after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.
Now, I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan.
Many of you have asked, won’t [military action in Syria] put us on a slippery slope to another war? … My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign…. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective…
Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria. Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.
[Interruption. From offstage, we hear the voice of Secretary of State JOHN KERRY.]
…the Russians. They’re saving our bacon.
I said we wouldn’t strike Assad if he turned over his chemical weapons within a week. I never thought he’d do it, but the Russians are now saying they got him to agree.
Christ. Well, okay. Scrap the airstrikes.
The White House Situation Room, September 2014.
First the so-called Islamic State takes Fallujah, then Mosul. These guys are supposed to be the JV team, but now they control half of Iraq, and the Iraqi Army we built can’t seem to do a thing about it.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL:
They’re an imminent threat to every interest we have … beyond anything we’ve seen!
Now they’re taking over half of Syria, too, and cutting people’s heads off. Meanwhile Assad is still slaughtering civilians, al-Nusra Front is making mincemeat of the moderate rebels we want to support, and we don’t have a strategy.
Besides, I’ve said over and over that I’m not putting US troops on the ground. No boots on the ground. None. Zero. Nada.
We could try airstrikes.
Any of them. All of them.
Well, does anyone else have a better plan?
The Oval Office, a little later.
Good morning, everybody. Last night, on my orders, America’s armed forces began strikes against ISIL targets in Syria…. we also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group. As you know, we are also using airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq.
Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.
So this is our strategy.
But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
But Mr. President, Yemen is falling apart! How can you say that “taking out terrorists” is a successful strategy?
Mr. President, what about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t he the one killing the most civilians in Syria? Last year, we were going to bomb his forces. Are we taking our eye of the ball here? Don’t airstrikes against ISIL and al Qaeda-linked rebels end up helping Assad?
Mr. President, your comments brought to mind General David Petraeus’ famous question about the war in Iraq: “Tell me how this ends.” Where does this new conflict with ISIS end?
Mr. President, in a 2013 speech you reminded Americans that “We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” Do you still feel that way?
PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST:
The president isn’t taking questions at this time.
The Oval Office, November 2015. The room is dimly lit except for a widescreen television showing four channels simultaneously, and OBAMA again sits slumped at his desk, eyes closed. His hair is now mostly gray.
Voice of TELEVISION NEWS ANCHOR 1:
This is NBC News. Following a series of successful Taliban and ISIS attacks in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he plans to keep an additional 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan until at least 2017. Although he reiterated that, “Our troops are not engaged in major ground combat against the Taliban,” U.S. troops were on the ground during the battle for the Afghan city of Kunduz, actively engaged in combat.
Voice of TELEVISION NEWS ANCHOR 2:
This is CNN. Back in June 2014, President Obama gave the green light for several hundred US troops to return to Iraq in a highly limited capacity, serving as advisors to Iraqi military officials as they continue to struggle to defeat ISIS. The President repeated his promise that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.” But ISIS has proven surprisingly resilient, and today, the United States has more than three thousand troops in Iraq.
Voice of PENTAGON SPOKESMAN ARMY COL. STEVE WARREN:
We’re in combat. I mean, of course, this is a combat zone. There’s a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven’t noticed.
Voice of TELEVISION NEWS ANCHOR 3:
Last February, President Obama asked Congress to provide formal authorization for military action against ISIL in Syria and elsewhere. He emphasized that U.S. troops would not have a combat mission in Syria, and restated his conviction that America’s interests are not served by endless war, or by remaining on a perpetual war footing. Nonetheless, senior White House officials today announced that the president has authorized as many as 50 U.S. special operations troops into Syria to aid in the battle against ISIL.
Voice of PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST:
I think the president has been quite clear that there is no military solution to the problems that are plaguing Iraq and Syria… The president has put in place a multifaceted strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and this military component of that strategy is an important part of the president’s top priority, which is the safety and security of the American public.
The fact is our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed. The core of our military strategy inside of Syria is to build up the capacity of local forces…. And the president did make a decision to intensify that support by offering a small number of U.S. Special Operations military personnel to offer them advice and assistance on the ground …
Voice of DEFENSE SECRETARY ASH CARTER:
Would we send more troops into Syria if needed? Absolutely.
If you say, is it enough? I don’t think it’s enough. I think we’re looking to do more.
Yes, we are willing to do more. As we identify opportunities to do more, you will see us doing more. And we need to do more, much more than airstrikes….
[The voices trail off. With a sigh, OBAMA rises from the desk. He turns slowly to face the audience.]
Editor’s note: Portions of the dialogue in this piece are actual quotes and links to their sources have been embedded accordingly.
SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images