September 11, 2014

Obama's ISIS Speech Inspires Little Confidence

In one of the many ironies of history, President Barack Obama, who left Iraq back in 2011 to fulfill a campaign promise, "is winding down his time in the White House by defending fresh military action in that nation," writes Jennifer Bendery in The Huffington Post.

The speech that President Obama made last night was as much an anti-ISIS speech as it was a pro-American speech, as Newt Gingrich said afterwards on CNN. And there is nothing wrong, or surprising, about that. Every U.S. president beats his chest in every speech, whatever the time or occasion. It's mandatory.

But mixing the issues of fighting terrorism and the revival of the auto industry together in the same speech just doesn't sound right. Obama went from war commander to used car salesman in a span of twenty minutes.

The biggest error of the speech wasn't even about ISIS, but about Russia. President Obama said, "It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression and in support of the Ukrainian people’s right to determine their own destiny."

There is no evidence whatsoever that Russia has committed aggression against Ukraine. The problems there arose when the democratically elected government in Kiev was replaced by Washington with a neo-Nazi regime.

But President Obama wasn't totally dishonest in his speech. He was upfront about the limits to American power in confronting ISIS. Obama made many wise statements. He said at one point that the Islamic State was neither Islamic nor a state. That is something that not even so-called Muslim leaders have the courage or the moral conscience to say.

President Obama is completely right that the threat that ISIS poses to the region, and the wider world to a certain extent, has to be faced by local actors and regional governments.

But there is no amount of hair pulling that can be done to get Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Turkey all on board with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign. They see ISIS as a useful tool, as does Washington, and Obama's prime-time denouncements hasn't suddenly ended the group's usefulness. 

The simple truth is that Sunni Muslim political leaders and princes have abdicated their moral and political responsibilities. They have sided with ISIS in its war against Shiites, Christians, Kurds, Yezidis, and other minorities, and they cannot turn back now even if they wanted to. They have chosen terrorism as the means to exert their influence and spread chaos in Iraq and Syria.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was on the money when he said in an interview earlier this year something to the effect that the ISIS snake will bite off Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

For now and the foreseeable future, the so-called Islamic State will flourish. Obama's half-baked strategy isn't designed to accomplish anything spectacular. Experts have pointed out that U.S. policy towards ISIS is full of holes and contradictions.

Indian historian and commentator Vijay Prashad said on Democracy Now, "It seems that the United States wants to have it both ways: on the one side, take on the Islamic State, and on the other side, continue with promoting chaos inside Syria. You cannot promote chaos and take on the Islamic State. You have to pick one particular strategy, and Mr. Obama actually has chosen both."

History will decide whether President Obama has made the right decision.