Editor’s note: William McCants details what should be included in President Obama’s speech tonight on defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). He suggests the president be clear on the threat posed by ISIS and realistic about the difficulty of destroying them, and explain how to prevent similar groups from emerging in the aftermath of their defeat.
A year ago today, President Obama addressed the American public. In his speech, the president explained why the United States should attack Syria to punish its ruler for ignoring Obama’s warning not to use chemical weapons. But a war-weary American public balked and the president ultimately decided against military action. Today, the president is again going to argue for military action inside Syria and this time the American public supports him. But instead of initiating attacks on a sovereign state, we contemplate extending a weeks-old war against an insurgent pretender to statehood.
The Islamic State has been around for a while and, despite sharing the global jihadi ideology that calls for the destruction of the United States, the president and the American public were not too worried about it previously. What changed the president’s calculations and those of the public are the Islamic State’s actions this summer. The group took over large swathes of territory in Iraq, prompting the president to launch airstrikes to halt their advance on the capital of our allies in Baghdad. When the group responded by beheading American journalists, American support for military action against them soared.
President Obama may have the wind at his back now but the fight against the Islamic State will be a long one, which means public support for it will wane. To ensure the public continues to support the war on the Islamic State, here is what Obama should do tonight:
1. Level with the American people about the nature of the threat.
The Islamic State threatens our allies in the Middle East, not the United States. As the president and his intelligence chiefs have said, the Islamic State has not yet targeted the United States. Even if it did, the group would have an awfully hard time getting past our defenses. Our defensive measures are much stronger than they were on 9/11, and there is an ocean that separates us from Europe and Asia, making it much more difficult for would-be attackers to enter this country undetected. In contrast, the Islamic State and other Sunni rebels nearly overthrew the government in Baghdad and they operate close to the borders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two of our closest allies in the region whom we have pledged to protect.
2. Emphasize how hard it will be to actually destroy the Islamic State.
Despite the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq, its real powerbase is in Syria, which the United States cannot destroy by airpower alone. There is no public support for putting American boots on the ground so we need a capable proxy; so far there isn’t one. We could build a proxy out of existing rebel forces, something Obama has been reluctant to do because of extremists in their midst. Or we could build a new force from scratch outside Syria, which would take years. Either way, we are committing ourselves to a long, expensive war waged by brutal men on our behalf.
3. Explain how we make sure it won’t happen again.
Assad’s counterinsurgency, our Gulf allies’ intramural competition, Turkey’s insouciance to militants crossing its border into Syria and outside private donations to extremists all contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Obama will need to put forward a plan, even in rough outline, of how the administration will ensure another group doesn’t take its place once the United States and its allies get rid of it.
Whatever President Obama says, he will not be able to sway the skeptics who are against military intervention in Syria. But since he was once among their number, he should at least make a convincing case for why he changed his mind.
At an even broader level, Islamic exceptionalism means questioning the conventional technocratic approach that sees problems both at home and abroad as products of material factors that can be addressed through targeted policy interventions. Things like poverty, underdevelopment, rural-urban migration, and so on all matter, but so do the things that can’t be measured.