President Obama’s Dispiriting Pep Talk

President Obama used an interesting metaphor in his Oval Office address to describe Americans’ weariness for battle.

“I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” Obama told the nation.

There is absolutely no doubt that ISIS is a cancer that threatens to metastasize, spreading across the Middle East and infiltrating Western nations with its hate-based ideology. But President Obama likened ISIS to an incurable cancer, one that no amount of radiation can destroy nor chemo dissolve. Perhaps that adequately describes the president’s view of ISIS, but it’s not exactly the reassuring message that many were hoping for. Perhaps more importantly, the choice of words suggest that this White House does not have the prescription for what ails us, and yet promises that they’re going to stay the course on a treatment that is not working. David Nakamurawrites for the Chicago Tribune:

Obama’s address amounted to a reassertion of his counterterrorism strategy with the public, more than a year since the Islamic State seized control of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The president, who in 2014 referred to the organization as a junior-varsity squad, has been accused of underestimating the group; the attacks in France and the United States have ramped up pressure on the administration to clarify its strategy.

To that end, Obama did not announce any new measures on Sunday. Instead, he attempted to clearly spell out the extent of the terrorist threats, explain his approach to fighting extremists, and caution the public against reacting in ways that he believes could exacerbate the problem.

In last night’s address the president described ISIS as “thugs and killers, part of a cult of death” with a “hateful ideology” that have successfully morphed the terrorist threat “into a new phase.” Thankfully he seems to understand that ISIS is more than just al Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” or, as he described them more recently, “a bunch of killers with good social media.” But despite a clear understanding of the deep depravity of the enemy and the shifting nature of the threat they pose, President Obama refused to offer anything new.

Instead, he said we will “continue to hunt down terrorist plotters,” “we will continue to provide training and equipment” and that we’re already “working with friends and allies to stop ISIL’s operations” and have “begun to establish a process—and timeline” to end the Syrian war. He offered no new resources, no change in strategy, and no adjustments to existing programs.

Perhaps the point was simply to reassure Americans that the president not only knows what he’s doing when it comes to fighting ISIS, but he has had a plan for months, one that has been successful enough to stick with a while longer. His confidence seems reinforced by the choice of venue. His decision to speak from the Oval Office—for just the third time in his presidency and first in almost five years—suggested that he felt drowned out by unending punditry and candidate’s prognostications, and wanted to assert himself. But does anyone really think that the current strategy is working? And did anyone come away from last night more confident and assured?

No and no.

Fortunately, the president does deserve applause for doing some things well. He clearly described the attacks in San Bernardino, Boston, and Fort Hood as part of the ongoing terrorist threat. He clearly understood that success can’t be accomplished through “tough talk.” And for the first time, he clearly explained that an extremist ideology has spread within Muslim communities, a rhetorical shift that allows the White House to finally talk openly about attacking a radical strain of Islam without intimating that we are at war with Muslims generally.

Sadly, these don’t come close to overcoming the obvious dearth of strategy. While it may sound nice that “we are on the right side of history” and that we were “founded upon a belief in human dignity,” we should be wary of accepting either of those as a reason that we should succeed. If anything our embrace of morality and zest for life make our challenge all the more real given that we are facing an enemy who doesn’t share such ideals.

In that sense, it will be easy for Americans to walk away reassured that we continue to be united by common principles. But that’s cold comfort if the president can’t reassure us that he has a legitimate strategy to defend them.