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Beyond the boob tube: An exchange among Brookings scholars about Obama’s speech

After President Obama’s we-will-degrade-and-destroy-ISIS speech, the scholars at Brookings who have some expertise on the Mideast started a group email chain of their reactions and made an edited version of it public. My purpose here is just to pass along this link and commend it to your attention.

The comments in it are mostly smart and substantive. Having spent the aftermath of the speech channel-surfing for reaction and hearing mostly bloviation, I very much appreciated the quality of the Brookings exchange. Of course, there’s a reason that a TV set is nicknamed an “idiot box.”

There’s no one in the Brookings group with whom I particularly agreed. And many of them start out with the credibility problem of having favored the original disastrous blunder, the invasion of Iraq. And I would like to have heard from at least one dove. But these are smart, serious people whose experience combines knowledge of the Mideast, of military matters, of inner-White House politics, of speechwriting. I felt smarter after reading it.

They seemed mostly to agree that the talk of ISIS as a threat to the U.S. homeland is mostly hype, but most of them seemed to think it was necessary hype.

Martin Indyk makes a good point in the Brookings thread that the Achilles heel of ISIS is that they actually hold territory, and quite a bit of it. He emphasized that this gave them a problem of having to decide whether to use their resources to perpetuate their military campaign or to feed and govern the people in their territory. The  other piece of that argument that occurs to me, which Indyk didn’t emphasize, is that if the Obama-led coalition wants to go after ISIS, they know where it lives, unlike, for example, Al Qaida.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/12/2014 - 11:50 am.

    Haven’t read it yet, but

    While ISIS/ISIL -holds- territory, it’s not clear that they have any fixed home base that can be attacked. There’s just so much you can do against a tribe of nomads short of hunting them all down on their home territory, which is a mug’s game.

  2. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/12/2014 - 04:00 pm.


    I’ve only glanced at the email thread, but my take is that IS/ISIS/ISIL currently represents no direct threat to the U.S., though there may be merit to the idea that if they become truly established, they will turn their attention to striking us. Right now they have their hands full with a full-on war in Iraq and Syria, so I don’t think they can spare much effort for a serious terrorist strike on the U.S. homeland. They do threaten middle east regimes, which indirectly threatens us, primarily in terms of energy supply. They did directly threaten Russia, but there are Muslim populations in Russian territories that have been suppressed by Russia. On balance, nipping it in the bud may be the prudent thing to do – if there is a plan that has a real chance of doing so.

    I don’t think air strikes alone will do it, because they never do, and depending on Arab countries to carry the fight on the ground is simply fantasy. Air strikes will inevitably involve “collateral damage”, and blowing up more wedding parties only feeds the radicals. At a minimum, special forces ground actions are needed, and as far as I know Obama has not mentioned that (unless that’s a deliberate omission for tactical reasons). I certainly do not favor sending in regular ground forces, although that is the certain way to inflict real defeat; I think we’ve had quite enough of that kind of involvement.

    I’ve also heard no mention of addressing the root causes that drive these radical middle eastern groups. America has been in denial about this since before 9/11. They don’t “hate our freedom” – young people are disenfranchised, they see no hope for their future, they see the West continually meddling in their affairs and diluting their culture, and so they are driven to radicalism. I don’t know what the answer is – we can’t just walk away either – but smart people need to figure out a way to promote our interests without stomping all over other cultures. If we had ever gotten serious about replacing oil as our energy source, we could have done so, not to mention averting the worst of the climate crisis, but we’ve been too pig-headed to do that, so here we are.

    I don’t expect a happy solution in my remaining lifetime.

  3. Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/12/2014 - 04:00 pm.

    The nomenclature thing

    Does it matter whether we call them ISIS, ISIL, or just IS?

    Is buying into their nomenclature granting them unearned credibility?

    Is it even an important question?

  4. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 09/12/2014 - 04:17 pm.

    ISIS Speech discussion

    As Eric notes, there’s no real counterpoint here — all participants are interventionists. The recognition that ISIS isn’t really a threat to us is good; the thought that it’s necessary hype suggests we need to be lied to for our own good. The real countries at risk here are Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Iraq government does not seem to be getting its act together quickly, and the Saudis and Jordanians are simply not stepping up to the plate when their own lunch could be eaten. They have lots of combat aircraft we sold them to put to work, as well as troops who actually speak Arabic and know the area. We can’t want their stability more than they do. Our insistence on doing so creates a moral hazard that costs us more than it costs them.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/12/2014 - 07:09 pm.

    All Arab countries

    are not the same.
    Jordanian and Saudi troops (and there are not a whole lot of them — mostly they police their own populations) may speak dialects of Arabic, but not the same ones as the Isil fighters from Iraq and Syria speak. And they certainly don’t know the land.
    They would certainly not be as effective as our special forces.
    Egyptian troops might be better, but they’re occupied with suppressing their own population.
    The Iranians are probably the most effective government fighters in the area, and of course the Kurds and assorted sectarian militias.
    That’s why are best allies are the ones we can’t acknowledge; the Syrians and Iranians.

  6. Submitted by Steve Mayer on 09/13/2014 - 10:26 am.

    holding territory

    Good point about the distracting perils of holding territory. I think the same point can be made about Israel, which IMHO is a disaster for Judaism.

  7. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/14/2014 - 04:27 pm.

    What’s in a name?
    Not that much, but one rolls off the tongue better than another in English.

    Why should they get to pick the imagery?

    The goddess name is pertinent to some religions & they are perverting the image those hold, though the original name would not be pronounced this way.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/15/2014 - 08:26 am.


      I noticed that in NPR reports they’re calling it “the so-called Islamic State”.

      That’s one way not to cede them the power!

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/15/2014 - 08:21 am.

    McCants said, ” I was disappointed he didn’t say more about the regional order we’re actually fighting to protect.”

    And I thought, “What order?” What is this “regional order” that he speaks of? I believe that disappeared over the past couple of decades with the rise of extremism.

    Order was only maintained by repugnant “big man” regimes where imposition of will from the top down kept governmental structures and borders in place.

    The value of order, borders and internal political strategies has all been bypassed by modern communications and very old extra-national affiliations. And, for the other large segments of the population, the value of seeking answers within the governmental structures has been rendered worthless by the inertia of an essentially ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy.

    The west assists in our own way such as encouraging separatists like the Kurds and by the corruption of back channel money flows from governmental actions and private industry.

    So, I ask–what order do we want to preserve? The order of the old “big man”–Saddam Hussein? The order of the corrupt Maliki? The order of the religious madness of the IS? The transnational aspirations of the Kurds?

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