Barack Obama has always been good with words, but he’s not good enough to give coherence to his ramshackle foreign policy. Not surprisingly words have failed the president (or, to be more accurate, the president has failed words) most conspicuously when it comes to the aspect of his policy that’s in greatest disarray — his policy regarding terrorism.
First, Obama admitted that he didn’t have a strategy for dealing with ISIS. On his next try, after initially stating that his objective is to degrade and destroy ISIS, Obama ended up saying that his goal was merely to reduce it to a “manageable problem.”
Obama tried again today. This time he said unambiguously that his goal is to degrade and destroy ISIS (or ISIL as he calls the terrorists):
Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it’s no longer a threat—not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States.
Unfortunately, Obama again lost the plot for a third time when he explained how he intends to accomplish this:
Mr Obama compared the fight against Isil to those with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
He disclosed that US forces had killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, as had been reported but not previously confirmed.
Mr Obama said: “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are steadily moving in the right direction. And we are going to achieve our goal.
“We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat Isil the same way that we have gone after al-Qaeda, the same way that we have gone after the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, where we [have] released the fact that we have killed the leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia and have consistently worked to degrade their operations.”
But the fight against ISIS bears little resemblance to the fight against what Obama has called “core al Qaeda” or to the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Unlike these outfits, ISIS is a large army that now controls a huge amount of territory — enough to form a state, which is its goal.
You can’t defeat an army or a would-be state by taking out its leaders. Why does Obama profess otherwise? Because he’s unwilling to commit to the forms of action everyone understands are required to defeat a well-trained, well-financed army that possesses all manner of sophisticated weapons, usually in large quantities.
Even Chuck Hagel has figured out that ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve seen” before. If it is analogous to any of our recent enemies, that enemy is the Taliban. Like ISIS, the Taliban had an army. It also had a state.
No one thought we could defeat the Taliban by killing its leaders. We defeated it, albeit it only temporarily, through “shock and awe.”
Obama doesn’t do “shock and awe.” He doesn’t even do traditional boots on the ground. He does drones and, under extreme duress, limited air strikes.
He will neither destroy nor, in all likelihood, significantly degrade ISIS that way. But at least he has finally found words that will get him through a news cycle without widespread derision.