Column: Obama’s ISIS speech contains good ideals, but a poor plan

President Barack Obama takes the podium in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, to speak during a commemoration ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery in the U.S. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

On Sunday night, President Obama delivered an address from the Oval Office about his plan to confront the threat of ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism. He made strong points about the need to oppose Islamic fundamentalism while also avoiding discrimination and hate toward Muslims. However, his policy outline appeared to be the same rudderless and indeterminate course we have followed thus far.

As recorded by CNN, the president proclaimed, “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.” This optimism appears unwarranted. We have been fighting a war on terrorism for the past fourteen years with no end in sight. A month ago, Paris was struck by a coordinated and deadly terrorist attack. Last week the San Bernardino attack took place, prompting the president to make this speech. Yes, we killed Osama bin Laden and dismantled al-Qaeda, but new terror networks and organizations like ISIS have sprung up to take its place.

With these types of attacks still occurring fourteen years into a war against terror, many Americans feel like this may be a horrifying and inescapable new normal. The president seemed to acknowledge this feeling by stating, “And I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.” Yet, he did little to allay these feelings of fear and despair.

Rather, the president outlined a series of lukewarm proposals with a confidence that does not square with reality. He cited the airstrikes against ISIS as well as a commitment to “hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary.” Next, he mentions a plan to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces and our deployment of Special Operations Forces.

Our efforts to train and equip forces in the region have almost always gone disastrously and the weapons we provide have often ended up in the hands of the very terrorists we are trying to defeat. What faith should the American people have in the effectiveness of this prong of the president’s plan?

The president then mentions our work with allies to defeat ISIS, explaining that “we are cooperating with Muslim-majority countries… to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.” The American people probably would like to know why, while ISIS is marauding and murdering across Syria and Iraq, our great military allies are France, Germany and the United Kingdom, while the countries in the region can only be bothered to provide a team of cyber-warriors, according to the president.

Why do the countries in the region not provide a coalition of ground forces? Are they not bothered by the threat of ISIS? Are they fearful of angering Islamic fundamentalists within their own borders? The president has no answers for these concerns.

Finally, he expressed faith in “a political resolution to the Syrian war.” Given the absolute chaos in Syria, the astonishingly large number of parties involved (Assad’s government, numerous rebel armies including Islamist al-Nusra, the Kurds, and ISIS), President Obama’s faith in a ceasefire and political resolution is unbelievably Pollyannaish. If this announcement was meant to be reassuring, it failed to meet its goal.

Despite the president’s muddy, overly optimistic and out-of-touch policy statements, to give credit where credit is due, his heart is in the right place. In a limited way, he acknowledged the struggle occurring over the heart of Islam, calling on Islamic leaders to condemn not only violent terrorism, but Islamic fundamentalism itself, which he described as “those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

This is the strongest language President Obama has used yet to recognize and condemn the dangerous ideology spreading through some segments of the Islamic community and that is a promising development. He also asserted the need to condemn discrimination and prejudice against Muslims in America, a goal that appears increasingly important given Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The fact that nearly 30 percent of Republicans are expressing support for a man who makes such offensive, outlandish remarks is deeply disturbing. The Trump campaign and his loyal followers have consistently displayed an unhinged, freewheeling nativism not seen in America since the 1920s. Though his policy statements left much to be desired, the president is spot on regarding these points.

We must condemn Islamic fundamentalism while simultaneously condemning discrimination and prejudice at home.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.