Rallying the nation to a war against the Islamic State terrorist group in primetime Wednesday night, President Barack Obama sought to project both resolve and reassurance. America will lead a broad coalition in degrading and ultimately destroying what amounts to a hybrid terrorist army, but will not “get dragged” into another prolonged war of regime change and nation building. That’s a nuanced message as far as war cries go, and Obama seemed dispassionate and at times almost conflicted in delivering it. “I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said Wednesday night. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL [another term for the Islamic State] wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”
In some ways that message comports with a president who has an instinct for splitting the difference on matters involving the commitment of military forces. Recall that Obama’s last primetime address to the nation came almost exactly one year ago, when he asked Congress to authorize military strikes on the Syrian regime to enforce the administration’s red line against using chemical weapons on civilian populations. When Congress balked, Obama split the difference, forgoing airstrikes but agreeing to a Russian-crafted plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles instead. After many months of deliberation on whether to surge U.S. troops to Afghanistan in his first term, Obama likewise decided to send fewer troops than the military commanders wanted and, against their advice, to announce a firm withdrawal date. Ditto the more recent decision on whether to leave a residual U.S.-led force in Afghanistan after most combat forces are withdrawn at the end of this year: a smaller-than-requested force of some 10,000 troops, and a firm exit deadline of 2016.