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Another president, another Iraq speech

By Anthony ZurcherEditor, Echo Chambers

The speech was short, roughly 15 minutes. Heavy on rhetoric and light on details, it was the kind of script a president delivers when he believes the public is already on his side.

For now, according to opinion polls, the American people seem to support President Barack Obama’s steps toward greater involvement in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. If by beheading two American journalists the Islamic militants wanted to get US attention and stir its anger, they were successful.

Reaction from commentators and analysts tended to reflect this American mood, as well.

Those on the right who had been calling for increased military intervention in Syria offered words of support, leavened with a heavy dose of I-told-you-so.

“I thought that this was a fine speech, grading against the curve of my expectations. But my expectations were low,” writes the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. “I have serious doubts that Obama has any desire to stick it out beyond the moment the American people stop paying attention.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger says that the speech was the mark of a humbled president. He wonders, however, if the message has really sunk in.

“It had better,” he answers. “What the US needs if it is to prevail in the battle Mr Obama put forth Wednesday is the genuine article of presidential leadership.”

Not everyone on the right is on board, however. Outside the Beltway’s James Joyner calls the plan “Whack-a-Mole with no end in sight”.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

This is an almost text-book case for not starting a war”

Andrew SullivanThe Daily Dish

“Frankly, this is simply the logical continuation of Obama’s existing IS non-strategy and, indeed, his general counter-terrorism strategy of blowing up the bad guys and hoping they get tired of it eventually,” he writes.

The Atlantic’s David Frum writes that Mr Obama’s plan will boost Iranian hegemony in the region and aid the brutal Syrian government of Bashar Assad.

He acknowledges the irony of his views, since as a White House speechwriter he helped sell the 2003 Iraq invasion to the public.

“Those of us associated with the Bush administration bear the burden of having launched a war on false premises that then yielded disappointing results,” he says. He goes on to argue that, unlike the Iraq War, this latest intervention has “no discernable aims”.

“It’s a reaction: an emotional reaction, without purpose, without strategy, and without any plausible – or even articulated – definition of success,” he concludes.

Another early backer of the Iraq War, Daily Dish’s Andrew Sullivan, also has a bad feeling about what’s in store.

“This is an almost textbook case for not starting a war,” he writes. “I have come to the conclusion that the administration saw a kind of tipping point on the ground with IS, has no real solution, and improvised this strategy on the fly.”

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

The nation that can’t agree on anything is taking definitive action”

Michael SchererTime magazine

Frum’s and Sullivan’s views track closer to many of the opinions of the conservative movement’s growing libertarian wing, who are not weighed down by past support for Iraqi intervention.

“We’re being gulled into a new-and-improved crusade to fix a Middle East still utterly destabilised in large part due to our still-smouldering failure to reshape desert sand into a form more to our desires,” writes Nick Gillespie in the Daily Beast.

The response from the left was supportive, although at times reluctantly so.

Time’s Michael Scherer says the speech was a good moment for Mr Obama, as he demonstrated his leadership in the one area – foreign policy – where his political opponents cannot block him.

“The nation that can’t agree on anything is taking definitive action,” he writes.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall also voiced his support, although he noted that he believes IS is less of a threat than is believed.

President Barack Obama.President Obama is the fourth president in a row to make a prime-time address explaining why military intervention in Iraq is necessary

“Making calculated use of American airpower to help anti-ISIS forces regroup and make progress against IS makes sense to me,” he writes.

Many liberal writers and commentators – like Mr Obama himself – were outspoken opponents of President George W Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. To turn around and back what appears to be a vague, open-ended call for US military action requires pirouettes some found difficult to stomach.

Mother Jones’s David Corn worries that Mr Obama has “unleashed the dogs of war” and will find them difficult to keep under control

“Obama’s intentions are clear: he doesn’t want to return to full-scale US military involvement in Iraq,” he writes. “But now that he has committed the United States to renewed military action there, where’s the line?”

When Mr Obama ran for president in 2008, he said he wanted to change the “mindset” that got us into the Iraq War, writes the American Prospect’s Matthew Duss. But that’s proving a hard thing to do.

“It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that, by constantly asserting vast executive authority for various anti-terrorism measures, from drone strikes to surveillance, Obama has also affirmed and strengthened that mindset,” he says.

Mr Obama is “complicit in his own entrapment”, he concludes. “And it’s something progressives will have to continue to struggle with long after his presidency ends.”

So once again the US stands on the brink of greater military involvement in the Middle East. All of this has a familiar ring to it, and not just because it was slightly over a year ago that Mr Obama was arguing in favour of air strikes on government forces in Syria.

As many commentators have pointed out, presidential speeches announcing US forces taking action in the Middle East have become a tradition for more than 30 years.

The last four presidents have given prime-time speeches explaining why Iraq, in particular, demands the expenditure of US blood and treasure.

It seems there’s no end in sight.


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