The President’s speech about combatting terrorism and defeating ISIS is being judged largely as if it were a piece of performance – on whether the President showed enough emotion, whether he was sufficiently forceful. I prefer to judge it based on its substance. And in that regard, the key weakness in the speech comes in this paragraph:
Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL. A group that threatens us all.
I’ll believe that when I see it. More to the point, I’ll believe that our government’s top priority is to resolve the Syrian civil war, rather than to make sure the right sort of people win the Syrian civil war, when we start acting as if that is our goal.
But, as I argued not long ago, without some kind of regional coordination between mutually-antagonistic powers – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia chief among them – it’s very hard to see how the Syria civil war comes to a conclusion. And without a resolution of that conflict, even if we defeat ISIS we will at best buy a bit of time until the next head grows on the hydra.
It’s past time to hear some articulation of how to use whatever leverage we have to change the behavior of those regional powers. Muslim communities – most especially in the United States – have produced plenty of leaders who been exemplary in standing up to terrorist ideologues. The behavior of too many allied Muslim states – Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, Pakistan, Turkey – has been far less upstanding, to say the least. It would be great to hear a strategy for how we’re going to change that – from the current President or from anybody currently running for President.
In its absence, the rest of the President’s strategy amounts to playing defense. And his would-be successors’ alternatives, to the extent they have any, amount to variations on the theme of how to make ourselves feel better while making the problem worse.