A Quick Take on the President’s Speech: The Good and Not-So-Good

September 11, 2014

A few weeks ago, I took to War on the Rocks to advocate Presidential leadership in combatting ISIL.  After digesting the President’s speech last night, I am pleased with his plan, although I obviously would have liked to have seen it earlier.  A few quick thoughts:


1.  The President framed the threat of ISIL effectively.  He cited their threats against the United States, but differentiated those threats from actual intelligence indicating planning or execution.

2.  The President educated listeners.  This tightly constructed speech went a long way toward informing listeners about this group, why it is necessary to act, and why it is necessary to act now.

3.  The President reminded us of our greatness and centrality.  Some of us are not and have never been convinced that the President really believes this; hearing him state it as forcefully as he did last night was refreshing.

4.  The President stated that he would not hesitate to act in Syria.  Any hope of containing this threat likely depends on action in Syria. It is good that the President recognized this.

Not so Good

1.  The President simply does not get it, when he says “ISIL is not Islamic”.  This is ridiculous on its face. To admit that ISIL is an Islamic movement is not to tar the entire religion or paint all Muslims with the same brush – it is merely to acknowledge reality. The President has chosen to ignore the civilizational divide that exists and nurtures this threat, and it is not convincing to a nation of people who grow more convinced each day that we are in fact, locked in a decades long struggle with a religiously motivated ideology.

2.  The President overstated the objective.   He told us that “we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”  After thirteen years, two wars and countless operations, we have not destroyed Islamic terror threats.  I daresay “destroying” ISIL will take considerably more effort than the President described last night.

3.  The President’s assertion of authority is inconsistent with the degree of immediate threat.  Mr. Obama portrayed the ISIL threat accurately early in his speech, describing it as one that is distant but growing, with aspirations to harm us but no known plans to do so.  So when he states “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL”, he is of course, asserting that he has the authority to do so without Congressional approval.  With that formality out of the way, he then lays out his plan to seek Congressional approval.  This kabuki is how our government reconciles the War Powers Act, but my approach to the Commander-in-Chief’s authority leads me to conclude that this is exactly the kind of thing the framers wanted Congress to approve, and not the sort of emergency that requires the action of an “energetic” Executive.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy, and the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower. 


Image: White House