WASHINGTON -- In his first joint address to Congress in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to responsibly end the Iraq War. Seven years later, the president finds himself on the verge of passing another war in Iraq to his successor as his critics accuse him of overseeing a decline in American leadership in the Middle East that could lead to global instability.
In his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama sought to appropriately convey the threat posed by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
“In today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage,” Obama acknowledged. “But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he continued, using the administration’s preferred term for the Islamic State group.
Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie claimed last month that the U.S. is already experiencing World War III, with “radical Islamic jihadists” pitted against Americans. Without mentioning the New Jersey governor by name, Obama rejected the notion that the Islamic State group threatens U.S. survival.
“We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions,” Obama continued, referring to several Republican candidates who insist on describing the current U.S. conflict as a war against “radical Islam.”
“We just need to call them what they are -- killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed,” Obama said.
Obama’s persistent warnings against exaggerating the threat posed by the Islamic State are indirect justifications for limited and measured military actions in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, the president reiterated his belief that daily airstrikes, combined with support for local ground troops, while working in coordination with global allies is preferable to the nation-building approach embraced by his predecessor.
“American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world -- except when we kill terrorists -- or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling,” Obama said. “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”
Not to be confused with a pacifist, Obama boasted of the success of his past efforts to take out terrorists without deploying large-scale ground troops.
“If you doubt America’s commitment -- or mine -- to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell,” he said Tuesday. “When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit.”
Indeed, Obama’s current strategy is unlikely to achieve objective success by the end of his presidency. Despite 20,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets, and recent territorial setbacks in Iraq, the group still controls swaths of land in Syria, where the anarchy created by the civil war there allows the Islamic State to survive.
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