Thursday, September 11, 2014

The President's Address

It's exactly one year since the last presidential address to the nation about the crisis in the Middle East. (Why do these things keep coming up on the eve on September 11? Is there some lesson in that coincidence?) Last year at this time, the President was retreating from his self-imposed "red line" against Asad's use of chemical weapons in Syria. To intervene effectively, not only would he have had his own neo-isolationism to overcome (the neo-isolationism that he had run for office on and which had so significantly propelled him to the presidency), but he also would have had to overcome the neo-isolationism of the American public at large and much of the rest of the world that was more or less mobilizing for appeasement. A year later, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is even worse, thanks to the military ascendancy of the "Islamic State." How much of the blame belongs to failures in American international leadership and how much not remains still open to debate.

The President may technically have all the legal authority he needs to take the actions he plans, but I think it would be a mistake not to make Congress (and by extension the American people) completely co-responsible. Our elected representatives - both Democrats and Republicans - should be required to go explicitly on record, if only to limit future posturing.

In his speech last night, the President tried to make a case for the distinctiveness of the "Islamic State" - a distinctiveness that presumably puts them so far beyond any pale that it warrants a distinct response. Certainly, the "Islamic State" is exceptionally barbarous - even by Middle Eastern standards. But is it all that different in terms of basic ideology from the other terrorist groups - and terrorist states that have been driving the politics of that region for so long now? 

In any case, the President proposes to put together "a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat." Let's hope his strategy works. He plans to rely heavily on air strikes - including in Syria. He promises no American combat troops, but increased assistance to those fighting on the ground (which may remind some of the "advisers" President Kennedy put in South Vietnam over 50 years ago). And he plans an ongoing effort to enlist greater allied support. All that is certainly to the good. The question, which no one can answer yet, is, will it be enough? What if all these efforts fail to destroy the "Islamic State"? What then?

In his somewhat ritualistic conclusion, the President asserted, "As Americans we welcome our responsibility to lead." But, of course, that is precisely what the world - both friend and foe - is so uncertain about. Do we, today's Americans, any more really "welcome our responsibility to lead" in international affairs? Or indeed to lead anywhere at all?

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