I enjoy the slightly surreal disconnect that comes from comparing media images of an economic conference with a Google image search of its host venue. According to newspaper photographs, the G-20 Antalya summit, which concluded on November 16, took place in windowless meeting halls (in armchairs supporting world leaders who sat down two at a time and performed negotiation for cameras), or in front of a plain, branded backdrop and an array of national flags (for group photos). But President Obama’s press conference on the summit’s final day took place at the Kaya Palazzo Resort, which, according to Google images, sits between a beach and a golf course. There are multiple swimming pools at the Kaya Palazzo, curvilinear moats that wind around cabanas, waterslides, and palm trees planted in even intervals on grassy medians. It seems possible to see at least three beautiful shades of blue from anywhere in the resort. Watching Obama’s press conference, I imagined soft breezes and waves lapping at sand just off screen, while the journalists packed into the conference hall called for blood.
The only question that didn’t double as an unambiguous demand that Obama avenge Paris with ground troops came from a journalist who didn’t have a microphone, which made her inaudible to those watching on television. She asked something about Islamophobia and refugees, and Obama’s answer was empathetic, forceful, and humane. Before that, Obama had fielded five questions. The first was from Jerome Cartillier, of Agence France Presse: “One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed in Paris on Friday night. . . . The equation has clearly changed. Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” Then from a CBS reporter: “A more than year-long bombing campaign in Iraq and in Syria has failed to contain the ambition and the ability of ISIS to launch attacks in the West. Have you underestimated their abilities, and will you widen the rules of engagement for US forces to take more aggressive action?” Another journalist, ventriloquizing Obama’s “critics,” wondered if the president’s “reluctance to enter another Middle East war, and . . . preference for diplomacy over the military, makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies.” Then an American journalist, Jim Acosta of CNN, said, “I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS, and I guess the question is, if you’ll forgive the language, is, why can’t we take out these bastards?” Finally, NBC’s Ron Allen asked, “Do you really think you understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the Homeland?”
After Acosta’s question about the bastards, Obama said, “Well, Jim, I just spent the last three questions answering that very question, so I don’t know what more you want me to add.” But Obama’s answers didn’t just cover the reasons why his administration thinks a major ground invasion in Syria is inadvisable. What lent the press conference a slightly surreal tinge was a dynamic Obama noticed early on. As part of a long response to the first question, about whether it was time to change strategies, Obama said, “What’s been interesting in the aftermath of Paris, as I listen to those who suggest, ‘Something else needs to be done’—typically the things they suggest need to be done are things we are already doing.” He returned to this point later: “I answered this question earlier. I think that when you listen to what [my critics] actually have to say, what they’re proposing, most of the time, when pressed, they describe things that we’re already doing. Maybe they’re not aware that we’re already doing them?”
These things, as Obama spelled out, include diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war. “We’ve been trying to get all the parties together,” Obama said, “to recognize that there is a moderate opposition inside of Syria that can form the basis for a transition government.” Obama said this government will be “more inclusive” and “representative”; that it will not have a place for Assad, “who we do not believe has a role in Syria’s future because of his brutal rule”; and that it will produce a new Constitution and then hold “free elections.” The plan is for Syria to become a constitutional democracy.
Diplomacy talk might have been unsatisfying on its own, but Obama made it clear that US-led forces have conducted more than eight thousand airstrikes against ISIS targets to date—strikes that have dropped some twenty-eight thousand bombs across Syria and Iraq. The US has also been “taking out ISIL leaders, commanders.” The President added that in the coming months, these efforts will be “intensifying.” They will “accelerate.” For nearly an hour, journalists essentially asked Obama, “Why isn’t America killing a bunch of people,” and Obama essentially replied, “Listen, we are.”
Pundits like to say that Obama’s rhetorical brilliance abandons him when he isn’t campaigning, as a way of explaining—or excusing—policy failures. I think his skills are perfectly intact, and what pundits overlook is that the rhetoric is now aimed at them rather than at voters. The reporters at the Kaya Palazzo had trouble hearing Obama’s clear descriptions of the military’s brutal airstrikes because he doesn’t talk like his predecessor, who made so many Americans, including reporters, feel good about kicking terrorist ass. This was not lost on our President. “Some of them,” Obama said of his critics, “seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference.” In What I Heard About Iraq, a kind of pamphlet guide to the rhetorical atmosphere of the early years of the War on Terror, the writer Eliot Weinberger recorded a Pentagon spokesman as saying, “This is not going to be your father’s Persian Gulf War.” Part of the point of Barack Obama is that he doesn’t say things like that. Journalists generally describe his press conference remarks as “restrained” and “prudent.” For instance, a headline on Gawker about the Antalya press conference read, “Frustrated Obama Says Sending Troops to Syria Would Be a ‘Mistake.’”
Never mind the special-forces troops that Obama described as already “on the ground.” Consider the broad outlines of the Obama plan to destroy ISIS in Syria: air strikes will destroy ISIS strongholds, kill its leaders, and disrupt the flow of its supplies. Although the US is handling the vast majority of these air strikes, Obama told reporters that “more nations need to step up with the resources this fight demands,” meaning that eventually we’ll have something like a coalition of the willing in place. Meanwhile, US troops will train Syrians in security, so that the country might learn to defend itself from ISIS. And as a political side effect of ISIS’s defeat, Syria will remove its Ba’ath Party dictator and transform itself into the kind of constitutional democracy that holds free and fair elections.
This should all sound familiar. The problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy isn’t that it’s insufficiently aggressive but that it’s nearly identical to George W. Bush’s strategy for defeating al Qaeda—which, with its civilian death toll and broader destabilization of the Middle East, created the conditions for ISIS’s rise. Will another iteration of the same strategy do anything but provide a new wave of Islamic terrorists with opportunities to find recruits and occupy territory thrown into political chaos? The US declared war on al Qaeda nearly fifteen years ago, but as Obama noted at the press conference, the organization, which is now based in Yemen, “still poses a danger as well.”
Which returns us to the press conference reporters’ questions: If Obama is using nearly all of Bush’s blueprint for battling terrorist groups in the Middle East, why not use the whole thing and send in ground troops as well? Obama repeatedly stressed that holding territory is the key to ISIS’s credibility in the eyes of potential recruits. You can’t call yourself an Islamic State and claim to be building a caliphate without some physical territory. It’s thus unclear why sending in troops, just to hold ISIS’s territory while the special forces train Syrian security and diplomacy empowers the “moderate opposition,” would be inconsistent with the rest of Obama’s strategy.
The most likely explanation is political. In the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Times and other newspapers kept a running, daily tally of American casualties. As those numbers increased, they become powerful cudgels in election years. But none of the people carrying out our eight thousand air strikes is going to come home in a flag-draped box. ISIS has no planes and no missiles sophisticated enough to take anything out of the sky, and in any case, the Obama administration’s increasing reliance on drones means that many of our bombers are working out of air-conditioned facilities in Las Vegas or Djibouti or the United Arab Emirates.
American casualties made the war so unpalatable to Americans that Obama had to promise to end the war in order to win the election in 2008. But since then Obama has learned that so long as Americans do not die, Americans will allow the War on Terror to continue for as long as the President likes. After the attacks in Paris, Facebook and Twitter were overrun with posts demanding to know why equivalent media attention was not being paid to Beirut, which had suffered similar attacks just a day before. But these posts did not mean that Americans had suddenly developed a deep concern for civilians in the Beirut, only that knee-jerk criticism of the media has become a popular gesture of online mass self-consolation in the wake of violent tragedy. As long as civilian casualties in the Middle East remain irrelevant to the American political process, it’s hard to imagine the emergence of a political movement that would force the Obama Administration to reconsider its strategy of continual airstrikes. Obama’s most important contribution to the War on Terror may be that he turned it into a self-renewing and self-justifying enterprise. No sooner do we take the bastards out, along with their friends, their families, and whoever happened to be walking by at the time, than new bastards arrive to take their place.
This is the second installment of Richard Beck’s column on the War on Terror. Read more here.