During his State of the Union address on Tuesday,President Barack Obama lauded the US-led campaign against ISIL, reiterating that the terrorist group’s advance has stalled, and then offered a vision for the future, promising that “terrorist networks will be destroyed”.
For every affirmative statement regarding combatting ISIL and terrorism, there were omissions, the dark matter of political rhetoric if you will, obfuscating a reality where the threat of terrorism in 2015 is just as prevalent as in 2001 following the Bush administration’s declaration of a “Global War on Terror”.
After laying out positive indicators in the US’ economy, Obama declared: “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.”
US and coalition airpower stalled ISIL’s territorial momentum and, according to John Kerry, has eliminated half of ISIL’s leadership. Due to air strikes, ISIL no longer has the luxury of operating in large formations in open terrain.
Failure to admit
However, what Obama failed to admit is that throughout the duration of the air campaign, ISIL has simultaneously consolidated its position in urban centres in both Iraq and Syria. While civilians in cities like Mosul and Raqqasuffer from daily deprivation, apparently ISIL remains ensconced in these cities with access to enough financial resources to sustain its core organisation, replenish its arms, and dig-in for a potential ground assault.
State of the Union speeches generally tend to be optimistic, and in this regard Obama failed to address the endgame and timeframe for dealing with ISIL, at least in Iraq, never mind Syria where it appears to be gaining more territory.
They were probably omitted in the president’s speech because articulating both would generate more pundit critiques and talking points to be fact-checked.
In terms of an endgame, Obama’s critics have stated that he needs to address deploying the requisite ground forces to expel ISIL from towns such as Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq.
This critique ultimately raises the question of whether these will be American forces, Iraqi forces, or a combination of both. Either scenario raises US domestic concerns.
First, the Obama administration has been loath to admit the number of American “boots on the grounds” will expand beyond the few thousand advisers retraining the Iraqi military.
This aversion to increasing the number of ground forces was alluded to when he stated: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
Avoiding another war
While adamant in his promise of avoiding “another ground war”, US financial resources will still be needed to sustain the air campaign until the Iraqi military is ready to confront ISIL with a ground assault. That could take anywhere from a year to three years. In this case, Obama is engaged in a commitment that will not likely be resolved by the end of his term, bequeathing a security crisis to his predecessor.
In the previous statement Obama also promised to “destroy this terrorist group”, but failed to mention how. Ironically, if ISIL were expelled from Mosul, or even more optimistically, from their capital in Raqqa, it will be a short-term military victory, with no formal treaty of surrender.
ISIL fighters who survive will disperse, some to their home countries in Europe and the West, and with the potential to continue their fight.
Affiliated groups from nations in the Caucasus to North Africa who have declared their allegiance to ISIL, will continue to constitute a threat domestically and internationally.
Despite this reality Obama promised that: “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks…”
By using the term “networks”, Obama inadvertently acknowledges the open-end nature of fighting a threat based on dispersed geographic nodes.
This was the first speech to not mention al-Qaeda by name since 2001, as if omission is an indication that the group is no longer relevant. Yet recently, a State Department spokeswoman admitted that while al-Qaeda is “weakened”, the group still “clearly remains a threat”.
While promising to destroy ISIL in his speech, for all the resources America has invested since 2001, al-Qaeda still has not been destroyed.
Even if there is future success against dislodging ISIL fighters from Iraq, and perhaps Syria, ISIL could also morph into a dispersed network structure both in the region and abroad.
If the State of the Union speech was to create an upbeat assessment of the present and future threat from global terrorism for the sake of the Democrats and most likely Hillary Clinton’s next presidential campaign, then it makes sense for Obama to have omitted the challenges of using military means to combat terrorism in the 21st century.
State of Reality
After all, it does not promise to be a State of Reality speech. Such a hypothetical speech would have admitted that since 2001, fighting terrorism has only made the threat of terrorism more diffused. Instead of al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan, it has established groups from South Asia to North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as morphing into ISIL.
Bush justified a “Global War on Terrorism” in a State of the Union speech in 2002, promising to destroy al-Qaeda. Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech with regards to terrorism inadvertently falls into the same counterterrorism mindset as his Republican predecessor, emphasising that overwhelming use of state-sanctioned violence will defeat non-state actor violence, or terrorism.
ISIL is a cruel organisation that has destabilised the heart of the Middle East and it brought about its self-inflicted aerial punishment, yet there were socioeconomic grievances and sustained deprivation, in addition to crises of identity and alienation, which led to young men and even women to flock to its ranks and pursue a life of violence.
Obama triumphantly declared that a US-led regional and international coalition continues to combat ISIL. Nevertheless, he devoted most of his speech to highlighting strides made in the US with regards to job creation, home ownership, facilitating education, and improving healthcare.
It may be naive to request this from a future US president, but if the US were to be a partner, not a hegemon, in a regional and international coalition to foster these public goods in the Middle East or even the greater Global South, alleviating the conditions that generate this form of violence, then perhaps there would be a State of a Union speech where he or she can finally avoid the need to discuss terrorism.