Obama needs to clarify murky Middle East mission

Can President Barack Obama lead a coalition to degrade or destroy the terrorists of the Islamic State?

He stared resolutely into the camera from the White House last week, talking of war and threats. He’s a good talker. He enunciated. But the ideas weren’t clear. And that lack of clarity is frightening.

John Kass2

And after the speech, his administration struggled for days to determine whether we were at war or not. This is embarrassing. This is dangerous.

In his threats to bomb the Islamic State in Syria, are we moving against Bashar Assad, the dictator and killer who prompted that red line that Obama scuffed out a year ago with the help of Russia’s Vladimir Putin?

Only a year ago, Obama wanted to bomb Assad. Now, he seems destined to help him. It’s as if the president of the United States is some helpless cork bobbing on the waters, swept by currents too strong for him.

“You heard the president reaffirm we’re not going to work with Assad, officially that’s still a regime that we say ought to go, and yet they are the other major player and the major potential beneficiary of any action against ISIS in Syria,” said 28-year CIA veteran Paul Pillar, now of the foreign policy blog The National Interest, in an interview on my WLS-AM program last week.

Still, Obama’s resolute talk of dropping bombs and training fighters against the Islamic State warmed the frozen extremities of the neocons in the War Party. They can feel their fingertips again. These are the same folks who convinced us years ago that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and persuaded us to push the war against him in the dream of democracy.

But all that did was cost American lives and treasure, and Iraqi lives, and it directly gave birth to the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria.

Those who tell you otherwise are playing you for fools. And those of us who mistakenly supported the Iraq War will eat those sins forever.

The president’s new war stance has caused great shock among his liberal friends. Many seem to have curled up in the fetal position. And in primal posture upon soft ground, they fill brown paper bags with vague sighs about not knowing enough about all this to take a stand.

Liberals were once so addicted to hope that he offered them. And now they’re all but catatonic. Yes it’s sad, but is that what happens when all Hopium runs out and reality finally bites?

Despite the shrieking from some on the right, and some new harsh words on the left, Obama isn’t an evil man, or a particularly bad one. I believe he loves the country, although he’s certainly mangled many things.

He wasn’t ready for the job. He isn’t suited for it. He wasn’t prepared. He hadn’t ever run anything except his mouth.

We watched him jump so quickly from unimpressive backbencher in the Illinois legislature to the world’s political messiah, feeding the multitudes with baskets full of hope.

The president has lived all his political life on rhetorical tricks, political theater and magic. Remember, he was even applauded for telling us that he sometimes felt as if he was the empty vessel of our dreams.

All of this was made possible by another trait he learned years ago while serving his apprenticeship with the Democratic Party bosses from Chicago: avoiding direct confrontation.

That’s not leadership training. That’s political survival training. Facing the Islamic State, and trying to shore up a crumbling, tiny coalition to fight them, is different.

Obama’s abysmal poll numbers may get a boost from his speech. But didn’t the president just say that he really wasn’t all that good at grand political theater?

He also insisted in a recent interview with The New York Times that helping the so-called moderate rebels in Syria was a fool’s errand:

“With respect to Syria, it’s always been a fantasy. … This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

That was just about a month ago. And now these pharmacists and farmers are his shock troops on the ground? The optics, Mr. Obama, just like your golf game minutes after delivering a tearful speech about a beheaded American, are not good.

Either the Islamic State is a direct threat to the U.S. or it is not.

If it is truly a direct threat, then air power isn’t enough. You put soldiers on the ground, go into those holes in Syria and Iraq and kill them.

And if the Islamic State is not a threat, then what exactly is Obama doing?

Clarity, Mr. President. Find some.

You can’t lead without it.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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