In His Pivotal Speech on the War Against ISIS, It’s Obama vs. Himself

On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings, Americans have internalized the likelihood that somewhere down the line, ISIS will try and outdo its Al-Qaida progenitor.

Chemi Shalev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
This July 10, 2014 file photo shows U.S. President Barack Obama in a campaign style rally in Austin, Texas.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev

By any objective measure, President Obama has racked up impressive achievements in the war on terror in recent weeks: American bombings have halted the advance of ISIS forces in western Iraq, American influence has created a coalition of Western countries supporting the fight against the jihadist organization and American pressure has compelled Baghdad to set up a newer and more inclusive government. Two thousand miles to the south, meanwhile, American drones took out Ahmed Godane, the leader of Al-Qaida’s main East African affiliate, Al-Shabab.

All of this hasn’t helped President Obama much, however. His approval ratings continue to nosedive, as Tuesday’s ABC-Washington Post poll shows. Americans might be suffering from chronic disappointment from Obama or have possibly grown weary of his distant and aloof style of leadership. One way or another, Obama’s Wednesday night speech on the battle against ISIS on Wednesday night is drawing the kind of attention and creating the kind of suspense that have eluded Obama in recent years. That’s why it could turn into a landmark event, cementing Obama’s position as a terminally crippled lame duck or resuscitating his image as a leader who can march forward with confidence.

Obama won’t have to work hard to convince the American public that ISIS needs to be “dismantled and destroyed,” as he has already said: that job was handled by the organization’s propaganda department and its obscene snuff films portraying the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff and a host of other atrocities. On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings, Americans seem to have internalized the likelihood that somewhere down the line, ISIS will try to outdo its Al-Qaida progenitor. Seventy-one percent of the public, according to the new poll, support air attacks on ISIS, though a majority continues to join Obama in opposing American “boots on the ground,” sending John Kerry to the Middle East in a search for alternative volunteers.

The usually hostile Congress is also unlikely to place obstacles in Obama’s path. The public atmosphere has changed dramatically since Congress pledged to stand on its hind legs to prevent Obama from bombing Syria in the wake of its chemical attack on civilians last year. Congress will allow Obama to attack or not attack Syria as he sees fit, as long as he leaves them out of it until the polls close on the evening of November 4th. As the U.S. media has reported, most legislators would rather steer clear of the possible fallout of a Congressional vote on this matter: Obama supporters would not want to scare away voters on the left by endorsing a war, just as war supporters would prefer not to upset voters on the right by backing Obama.

Obama’s real challenge and true confrontation is with himself, and with his past. He needs to move from defense to offence, to lead from the front, this time around, rather than behind. He needs to prove that the politician who was elected to take America out of Iraq is also the best president to take it back in, even if carefully and partially. He needs to show that the leader who neglected allies in Europe and the Middle East in order to focus on America itself can regain their confidence in the campaign ahead. He needs to erase from the public’s hard disc his unfortunate boast of a stable and secure Iraq or his premature poo-poohing of Al-Qaida offshoots such as ISIS as “JV” squads emulating the big boys. Steering clear of any promise of quick fixes or immediate victories, Obama will have to prepare the public for such a long fight ahead that it may be his successor who will mop up the job.

Ultimately, however, the speech will be deemed a success if it is delivered with a blast from Obama’s past, when his flourishing rhetoric swept many Americans off their feet and gave them some hope for the future. The speech will be a failure right from the outset, however, if the man who steps up to the podium in the State Floor in the White House on Wednesday night is the Obama we’ve grown used to recently, looking haggard, ambivalent and unable to convince even himself.

In other words, if it’s Obama from the first presidential debate in 2012 with Mitt Romney, it’ll probably be a waste of time, but if Obama of the second debate happens to show up, things could start to get interesting.