President Obama has been fairly sparing in his prerogative of pre-empting prime-time television to address the nation over the last five and a half years, but last night’s address was a doozy. Here are the big takeaways:
(1.) Hard to believe, but Barack Obama may be best remembered not as the president who rescued the economy and then provided millions of Americans access to decent health care, but as starting a war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take a generation to fight.
(2.) The war will be unlike any other. Comparisons to World War II, let alone the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, do not begin to describe a conflict based on Whack-a-Mole air strikes backed by the marginally competent ground forces of Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria.
(3.) The air war in Libya didn’t work. Why should this one?
(4.) Not only will ISIS not be a pushover, it has learned well from the mistakes of Al Qaeda. It has deep pockets, a vast arsenal (much of it U.S.-supplied weapons), friends in high places who are supposed to be America’s allies, and is social-media savvy.
(5.) The conflict may well come to be known as the War of the Drone. The Obama administration has conducted about 120 deadly drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, more than in terrorist hotbeds of Pakistan in the last year, and the morality of the use of the lethal weapons may suddenly and regrettably become a non-issue.
(6.) American combat arms will be stretched so thin — and intelligence on the ground is so sketchy — that it is possible Al Qaeda will have breathing room unprecedented since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington 13 unlucky years ago today.
(7.) The war will effectively erase the border between Iraq and Syria and further blur the relationship between the U.S. and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who lest we forget has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people.
(8.) Obama called Iraq a “dumb” war at its outset in 2003, but the war he christened last night has aspects uncomfortably similar to Iraq, notably vague but unsubstantiated threats to the homeland that in the case of Saddam Hussein were proven to be utterly false.
(9.) The war clichés are flying fast and furious, but none is more apt than the fact no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And that once a war is started, a strategy (to the extent Obama has outlined one) can be impossible to control.
(10.) Unlike George Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, let alone FDR after Pearl Harbor, there is support among most Americans for going after the enemy while most of them disapprove of the president’s leadership.
(11.) The war is likely to be a wash on the campaign trail this fall, and it difficult to see how the conflict will change the likely outcome: a continuing and comfortable Republican majority in the House, a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate, and gridlock all around. But all bets are off for the big dance in 2016.
(12.) Obama avoided sticky constitutional questions. But because of his own weak standing with the public and obdurate Republicans, some of whom have repeatedly goaded Obama to escalate military operations against ISIS, he must seek congressional approval for the war before casualties start mounting.
(13.) The Iraq war has cost more than $1 trillion and severely burdened the U.S. The new conflict will further divert money and attention from crying domestic needs, including education, continued health-care reform, mass transit and other infrastructure improvements and, yes, immigration reform.
(14.) Killing anti-American sentiment abroad will prove to be far more difficult than killing terrorists and their leaders.
(15.) When will the U.S. stop its endless projection of the use of military force? It has not happened in my long lifetime, and I conclude yet again that absent a viable anti-war movement, war will be a central theme of 21st century America.