By Fred Benson
In his Oval Office address to the nation Sunday night, President Obama acknowledged that the ISIS threat in America is real and that there already had been several terrorist attacks in the United States, including the killing of 14 holiday partygoers in San Bernardino. He pledged to “destroy ISIS and any other organization that tries to harm us, by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.”
In brief, the strategic format he described included continuing to kill terrorist leaders; providing training and equipment to the thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces working with us; deploying more U.S. special forces to support our allies; identifying and shutting down sources of financing for terrorist groups; enhancing intelligence sharing with European allies; tightening coordination with the 65 countries that are part of the U.S. led coalition; revising the State Department visa waiver program; insisting that Congress pass legislation prohibiting anyone on the no-fly list from buying a gun; and taking a harder look at the travel patterns of those seeking entry into the United States.
At the same time, he pointed out that he would not deploy large U.S. combat units into either Iraq or Syria, or allow Muslim communities at large to be blamed for the actions of those few who are terrorists.
The president really had no choice but to address the American people on this growing national concern. For months, conservative critics have reveled in reminding the public that over time, Obama had described ISIS as a junior varsity version of Al Qaeda. He declared that ISIS had been contained in Iraq and Syria right before the attacks in Paris killed 130 people, and he announced that there was no credible evidence of any plans to conduct terrorist activities in the United States just hours before the deadly attack in San Bernardino.
Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds of Americans recently polled declared that Obama had exhibited neither the leadership strength nor the effective strategy thought necessary to defeat ISIS.
Responses to the president’s speech were predictable. Supporters hailed the talk as a strong step forward and praised the clarity and detail of his plan to defeat ISIS. Detractors concluded simply that he “ramped up the rhetoric, but not the reality.” An examination of previous statements on the subject reveals that there is, in fact, not much new in this talk.
There is nothing wrong with sticking with a plan that is working, but is it? Many of the elements he described as positive parts of the current strategy have not been as successful as he seemed to imply. Training of Iraqi and Syrian forces has fallen far short of expectations, and while bombing raids on ISIS targets have increased, there are still a substantial percentage of aircraft returning from missions without having dropped any ordnance due to failure to find an appropriate target. Further, within the coalition of 65 nations he mentioned, few participate at a meaningful level. The talks in Vienna designed to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria have accomplished little, and the challenges ahead remain formidable.
Equally disturbing was what Obama did not say. He did not reveal the true extent to which deployment of many more U.S. special operations units will be required to improve bombing results and carry the war to ISIS. Further, he did nothing to prepare the American people for the increasing likelihood of more “homegrown” self-radicalized terrorist attacks. Homeland Security officials acknowledge that detecting and preventing these attacks will be extremely difficult. These are glaring omissions.
The hard truth is that the downing of a Russian airliner, the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino massacre present clear evidence that ISIS is gaining strength and bring the effectiveness of the Obama strategy into question.
Obama declared Sunday night that America is under a serious terrorist threat and that he is confident his plan will make America safe. As commander-in-chief, he is now obligated to demonstrate progress on strengthening all elements of his strategy during his last year in office. No more promises – we need tangible successes. The U.S. cannot and should not do this alone. We need to see stronger international involvement. We need to see Iraqi cities retaken from ISIS. We need to see funding for ISIS start to dry up. We need to see Arab countries weighing in with us. We need to see safe zones created in Syria. We need to see more effective bombing. We need to start winning this war. All eyes are on you, Mr. President.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org