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National security experts react to President Obama’s speech on ISIS

Barack Obama speaks about counterterrorism and the US fight against Islamic State from the Oval Office. Saul Loeb/Reuters

President Obama challenges Congress and Muslims

Peter Dombrowski, Navy War College

Eight times, President Obama has addressed the nation after mass shootings in the United States. Last week’s shooting in San Bernardino and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 were the only two to involve both domestic killings and Islamist-inspired terror.

At such times, American presidents serve as the national mourner-in-chief, but they also must offer plans to prevent tragedies in the future.

As commander-in-chief, Obama could not simply acknowledge the tragedy in San Bernardino. He had to reassure the nation that he could both end the threat of terrorism and stop gun violence. His resolution was palpable. His faith in own strategy to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, is unshaken.

That’s appropriate, because President Obama has long offered a clear strategy to combat ISIS. His administration has relentlessly pursued air strikes and coalition building.

He has adjusted tactics when needed – for example, by deploying more special operations force on the ground as circumstances have changed. Nonpartisan analysis, from political scientists such as the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape, suggests it is working, albeit slowly.

Few American politicians share the president’s faith, however. Especially among those most vocal about destroying the Islamic State and ending Jihadist violence in France or California, few accept his leadership or judgment.

While Obama was still speaking Sunday night, Television host and former Republican Representative Joe Scarborough tweeted his skepticism:

The president’s strategy is not enough for Republican presidential primary candidates like Donald Trump or his critics in Congress like Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

Sunday the president called out Congress to pass legislation “to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun” and “to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons.”

The president urged lawmakers not to delay in “put[ing] in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa” and “vot[ing] to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”

Equally important, the president did not give the Muslim community here or abroad a free pass:

“That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”

We are now in a race to see whether Congress and non-radicalized Muslims and others will take concrete steps to support the president or simply decry his efforts and shout louder.

Peter Dombrowski is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College where he serves as the chair of the Strategic Research Department.

Obama’s speech was more of the same – and not what we needed

David Alpher, George Mason University

Trying to reassure a frightened and angry nation is never an easy thing.

Trying to balance reason and resolve, the need to build and the need to destroy in the face of an enemy as implacable and pervasive as Da'esh is even more difficult.

But the strategy President Obama laid out for dealing with the group – while clear and straightforward – has, in my opinion, little to no hope for success.

It was more of the same ideas that the administration has been using since before there was a Da'esh – a set of tactics, mistaken for a strategy, which has largely failed. The speech focused entirely on the destruction of the group, with no mention of a plan for stabilization and reconstruction in Syria, and no plan for addressing the root causes that led to Da'esh’s rise in the first place.

The president listed four critical actions as the core of the US strategy.

  1. Obama vowed the US military “will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary.”

  2. The president said “we will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens.”

  3. He said the US and its allies would stop the group’s operations by disrupting plots, cutting off their financing and preventing them from recruiting more fighters.

  4. Obama said the process of finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war had already begun.

Let’s look at each of these separately.

We’ve been hunting, killing and imprisoning terrorists, first in al-Qaeda and then in Da'esh, for 14 years now. Yet the numbers of attacks they carry out, or inspire, just keeps increasing worldwide. The past few weeks alone have seen attacks in the US, France, Nigeria, Beirut and the Sinai, and that’s not a complete list.

“Train and equip” programs have a very poor record. The two best examples are the Iraqi army, which has folded on contact with Da'esh, and the program to produce an indigenous Syrian resistance – which cost US $500 million and produced, apparently, “four or five fighters against ISIS.”

It is of course necessary to “stop ISIL’s operations,” as the president said. But, ironically, the San Bernardino attack that prompted this address seems to have been neither funded by nor directed by the group itself, which calls the president’s logic into question.

Stopping the Syrian war is also, of course, critical. But to date, we have heard of no plan for filling the power vacuum in a wrecked and mistrustful society that would follow the end of war there. Obama offered no such plan on Sunday. Power vacuums tend to lead to the sorts of problems we currently see in Iraq, Libya and Somalia – hardly a list to emulate.

Throughout the speech were a series of other missed opportunities.

Yes, we can pressure members of congress to vote to reauthorize the Authorization for the Use of Military Force – but Obama’s claim that we can both authorize force and avoid another long war makes little sense. Some use of force will be necessary, but in absence of a deeper strategy, it offers little hope of success.

Some of the partnerships that Obama called upon in this speech have been more a part of the problem than the solution. The intelligence and security cooperation gained through such partnerships does not offset the damage done to long-term efforts by repressive and undemocratic tactics used by those partners.

It was also an error to frame action on terrorism around Da'esh alone. By failing to include the US’ domestic right wing, nativist and Christian extremist groups – groups that gave us Eric Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof and others – the president focused attention toward Islam alone out of a range of growing problems. This flies in the face of his important calls for a more inclusive society, and opens dangerous gaps in the analysis that drives operations.

The strongest parts of the president’s speech were the ones he spent the least time on. We do indeed need stronger gun laws, both domestically and in our arms sales to other nations involved in this war. We do indeed need to focus on building more inclusive societies and living up to our best ideals. These – not warfighting – are the heart of the strategy we need, and we heard far too little of it tonight.

David Alpher has briefed the National Security Council, nongovernmental organizations and a range of offices of the US government on development and security policy in the Middle East.

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