Published On: Fri, Sep 12th, 2014

Obama can’t avoid getting U.S. into war

Nearly six years into a presidency devoted to ending U.S. wars in the Muslim world, President Barack Obama faced the nation Wednesday night to explain why he has decided to engage in a new one.

Obama did not describe his authorization of direct military action to defeat the Islamic State terror group as a conventional war. To the contrary, in a prime-time address from the White House, he sharply contrasted his use of targeted but limited American force with the large scale air-and-ground invasions launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush. “This effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said in prepared remarks.

But make no mistake: Obama’s escalation of air strikes and the use of U.S. personnel to help “degrade and destroy” the extremist Sunni group represents a major setback for a commander in chief whose early international appeal was built on a pledge to remove the United States from “permanent war footing.”

“How did this group that came in determined to remedy the Bush administration’s overreach … end up embroiled in a far more open-ended conflict that has just as far-reaching consequences?” said Rosa Brooks, a former Obama administration official who served at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011. “This is a legacy issue for him.”

Senior advisers have repeatedly said that the unexpected course of the Arab Spring greatly limited their ability to shape events in countries such as Syria. But whatever the source of unrest, it is clear that Obama was either naive to promise a new chapter in post-9/11 foreign policy or simply failed to deliver on that vision.

The night before Obama planned to visit the Pentagon on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his task was to reconcile the concerns of a public weary of war but, polls show, increasingly supportive of military action to stem the threat of the Islamic State.

Already, the Pentagon has carried out 154 air strikes on Islamic State forces in Iraq over the past month. The president has pledged not to send combat troops to the fight, but 1,043 U.S. service personnel are supporting the effort in Iraq — three years after Obama withdrew the final U.S. troops and declared an end to the war there.

The president and his advisers have acknowledged in meetings with congressional leaders and foreign policy experts that the campaign to defeat the Islamic State will take years and will probably extend, in one form or another, beyond the day Obama leaves office in January 2017.

It is not a legacy the president expected to leave. Less than a year after taking office, Obama delivered an address in Oslo as he accepted a Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for what the prize committee said was “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.”

Since then, Obama — to the deep dismay of civil liberties advocates — has attempted to define a new notion of how to use U.S. military might to take the fight to the enemy. His counterterrorism strategy, with its reliance on the lethal force of unmanned Predator drones and secret administration terrorist kill lists, has limited casualties to U.S. troops while outraging those who expected him to depart more fully from the tactics of his predecessor.

White House aides point to successes — most famously, the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and, this month, a Pentagon air strike that killed a high-level Al-Qaida leader in Somalia.

“The thinking about how to deal effectively with [the Islamic State] is informed by our experience with Al-Qaida in the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] region,” said Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. “There were a lot of lessons learned and best practices of how to prosecute a long-term counterterrorism campaign to degrade and defeat senior leadership.”

For the president, the desire not to rush headlong into sustained conflict has been captured in a West Wing mantra used by Obama and his aides: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” That mind-set can be seen in Obama’s deliberate response to the Russia-backed incursion of rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, in which the administration has sought to lead a coalition that has applied economic sanctions to Russia without supplying lethal military weapons to Ukraine’s ruling government.

“This is American leadership. This is American strength,” Obama said at West Point in June, referring to international sanctions that opened channels for negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.

Still, Obama’s ambivalence over how to deal with the threats emanating from Syria has been on full display for months. A year ago to the day, Obama addressed the nation in prime time to make the case for targeted air strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime after evidence emerged that the Syrian president had crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against civilians in his country’s civil war.

But even though Obama had concluded that strikes were necessary, at the last moment he changed his mind about ordering the military to act. Instead, he used his speech to request formal congressional support, which never came.

On Wednesday night, he returned to TV, this time to tell the American public that the time has come — whether Congress likes it or not — to send U.S. warplanes into battle once again.Speech

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