ERIN AGNEW, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
Wednesday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation on what he calls his “comprehensive plan to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” The plan includes the authorization of air strikes in Syria and Iraq and the deployment of 475 more American military personnel, whom President Obama consistently refers to as “military advisers,” carefully avoiding any implication that more active troops will be on the ground in the coming months. Talking around the issue of direct military involvement was a theme in President Obama’s speech, showing full awareness that he addresses a war-weary nation and must act in the face of a 40% approval rating and congressional stagnation acknowledged in his speech as “divisions and discord within our democracy.”
The challenge of this speech was the obvious dissonance between his opposition to “dumb war” upon taking office and his current intent to increase the number of American troops in Iraq and the Levant to 1,600. But for those who seek to contrast the legacy President Obama intended to leave internationally and that which he realistically will leave, his announcement comes with surprisingly careful timing and preparation. In 2002, then-Senator Obama assured an audience in Chicago, “ I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world... ” His speech Wednesday retained the same sentiment. After reiterating that American action comes in the form of calculated air strikes and partnerships with global forces on the ground, he drew parallels to operations “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” It is easy to view this particular comparison as tantamount to an admission. American action in both nations was not made public until both saw improved rankings in stability. That being said, it is not unwise to lay all cards on the table as President Obama asks for the support of a dubious citizenry and congress.
While building domestic support is still a hurdle for the president, his announcement was framed perfectly between announcements of NATO ally support and that of a coalition of ten Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. As of September 6th, the UK, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark have pledged significant support in the form of military assets, intelligence, equipment, ammunition, and/or weapons. They were joined by non-NATO affiliated nation, Georgia, which has previously sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The end of President Obama’s 14-minute speech took a surprising turn towards exceptionalist language, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a still-conservative-controlled Congress. His situation and word choice are both eerily evocative of President Bush’s 2003 declaration of war in Iraq. (President Bush saw an approval rating of 33% in the week preceding his declaration, to President Obama’s 40%.) Following a terse pause, President Obama fervently stated that “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other country.” His later insistence that “American Power can make a decisive difference” and that “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world” echo President Bush’s declaration of America’s responsibility to “bring freedom to others.” Both speeches-turned-declarations dedicated significant time to thanking American military members and ensuring them of the necessity and worthiness of their deployment abroad. With somber parallels to the interventionism of 2003, the question of that declaration’s validity lingers.
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