What Obama Could Have Said in His ISIS Speech

What Obama Could Have Said in His ISIS Speech

By Carl M. Cannon - September 14, 2014

In “Hamlet,” the hapless and ill-fated courtier Polonius offers one sound bit of advice to his liege. “Brevity,” he counsels the king, “is the soul of wit.”

Which leads to a question: Are modern U.S. presidents so lacking in wit—or is it soul?

One hazard of covering the news is that occasionally a beat reporter thinks a politician, courtroom official, or other newsmaker has missed the mark in a big speech. I often thought this as a young journalist covering criminal courts, especially when a lawyer delivering a closing argument overlooked pertinent evidence he’d presented at trial or misstated the facts of his own case.

American presidents speak so voluminously that mentally editing them is second nature to White House correspondents. This is a trap best avoided, and for the 15 years I covered Bill Clinton and George W. Bush I did my best. But I’m not a White House regular anymore, and anyway, Barack Obama’s rhetoric is so verbose and self-reverential that mentally rewriting him is irresistible.

Most of President Obama’s speeches badly need editing, and his 2,000-word prime-time address Wednesday night about his administration’s response to ISIS was a classic example. He’s hardly alone among modern presidents in this respect, but he suffers most in contrast to the presidents with whom he likes being compared.

At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln explained why Americans were fighting the Civil War, and why a Union victory was necessary to uphold principles of the nation’s founding. And he did this in 272 words.

John F. Kennedy, Obama’s other role model, delivered an inaugural address significantly shorter than Obama’s Wednesday speech. Kennedy’s prose was soaring, but his challenges direct. He urged Americans to ask what they can do for their nation, instead of the other way around. And he called on his countrymen to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Is the crisis in Iraq and Syria complicated? Sure, but so was the Cold War—and, even more so, World War II. Yet in his December 8, 1941 “date which will live in infamy” speech, Franklin Roosevelt briefed the American people on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of several other island territories and island nations in the Pacific, asked Congress for a declaration of war, and vowed to lead the United States to an “inevitable triumph”—all in 518 words.

Not to belabor the point, but Obama’s speech the other night was nearly as long as the Gettysburg Address, FDR’s speech, and Kennedy’s inaugural … combined. And infinitely less memorable.

So where did he go wrong, rhetorically? Well, the first part of the speech was strong, the middle part a muddle, and the ending full of irrelevant trifles. Let’s go through it section by section. He began by educating his audience about the continued threats from terrorists across the world, then focusing on ISIS (or ISIL), “which calls itself the ‘Islamic State.’”

The president said that the group is neither legitimately Islamic, nor a state. It was formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate, he explained, and is recognized by no government. It is, he said, “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

Obama listed the group’s war crimes: executing prisoners, beheading journalists, attempting genocide of minority groups, enslaving and raping women. They’ve recruited thousands of foreign fighters, he said, and are almost certainly bent on attacking America.

This was a clear-eyed commander-in-chief talking. It was also a man who’d learned a lesson from his previous dithering on Syria: He made it clear he wasn’t going to ask for congressional permission. But what was he going to do? This is where the speech began to meander. He expended as much passion saying what he wouldn’t do—send combat troops—as to what he would. Obama listed four steps: (1) airstrikes, possibly in Syria; (2) very limited U.S. personnel—he actually mentioned the number 475—to assist the Kurds and others; (3) employ unspecified U.S. anti-terrorism measures against ISIS; (4) provide humanitarian assistance to ethnic minorities threatened by the terrorists.

If that approach seems underwhelming, it’s also a chief executive being true to himself—and to those who voted for him. Obama gained prominence in the 2008 Democratic Party primary season in part because he was the only candidate in the field who had opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He won the presidency that year and won re-election in a campaign in which he boasted about bringing the troops home. He is a reluctant warrior.

Nonetheless, there’s little excuse for the third part of Wednesday’s address, which was a paean to, well, I’m not sure. He prattled about “energy independence,” using American know-how to fight the Ebola virus, and U.S. manufacturing. The only thing missing was the phrase “amber waves of grain” and background mood music.

So what should he have said? The Obama who burst on the national political scene with a post-partisan appeal—and one channeling the succinct impulses of Lincoln and FDR—might have said something like this:

“My fellow Americans, one question you are asking is how these barbarians came to be in control of so much territory in Syria and Iraq. Many of my critics blame me. They have said our administration should have acted more decisively to help Syrian rebels, and they have insisted that I brought our military units home from Iraq prematurely.

“My defenders have responded that the original sin was my predecessor’s. They say that we never had any business invading Iraq, let alone Syria, and that the U.S. military cannot solve every problem in the world.

“My answer to you tonight is that it is possible that I erred. Or perhaps the Iraq invasion was so ill-conceived a course of action that nothing good could have come from it. I’ll leave that for historians to decide. The important thing now is what our policy should be going forward. The great lesson of the 20th century was that murderous regimes bent on genocide don’t compromise, don’t negotiate in good faith, and don’t just decide one day to hold free elections and respect human rights.

“As much as I hate war—and that’s a sentiment expressed just that way by Franklin Roosevelt, the 20th century’s greatest wartime president—such regimes must be confronted, stamped out, and its perpetrators put on trial. That is what the United States will do with ISIS, beginning now.”

The night of Obama’s actual speech I met an Arab diplomat at a Washington event. We talked about the president’s impending address, and I inquired what his countrymen hoped to hear.

ISIS “called out Obama,” he replied. “They murdered innocent Americans—unarmed reporters—while saying Obama’s name. The only thing that people in my country want to know is, why are they still alive? The only thing they want to hear him say is that he will destroy them.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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