Looking back on Wednesday night’s presidential address to the nation, some analysts have wondered what, exactly, President Barack Obama intended to say. There was no real news in the speech, after all. The main point was to convey a four-part strategy for defeating the radical Islamist terror organization known as the Islamic State or ISIS (or “ISIL,” the president’s preferred acronym). Even those four parts seemed rather vague.
The fact is that the substance of Obama’s strategy does not matter. His purpose was to show that he actually has a strategy–in other words, to correct the spectacular gaffe late last month when he admitted that he had no strategy for defeating ISIS. (Actually, “admitted” is the wrong word–Obama wanted to reassure critics that he was not going to lead the nation to all-out war, and that talk of a strategy for defeating ISIS was overblown.)
Obama did not have to make a speech to the nation. He could have–and should have–approached Congress with a viable war plan, and asked for a declaration of war or an authorization for the use of force (in Syria, at the very least, which Congress did not permit a year ago). But he did not. He does not want to work through the legislature (nor do they want to have to face a politically difficult vote less than two months before midterms).
No–the purpose of the speech was not to win back Iraq but to win back the news cycle. And that is why it was so unconvincing, meandering back into domestic policy, clearer about what the administration would not do in Iraq than what it would. Unlike many previous prime time addresses, this one was significant. It was a leader guiding his nation towards war. Or, at least, it should have been. But the speech was a political defense instead.
As in many other speeches, Obama used the first person–glaringly, and inappropriately. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” he said, as if what was at stake was his presidency and not the lives of Americans. Whatever happens in the Middle East, he wants history to note that he at least said the right things.
That is the response of a middling academic, not a national leader–the fixation on battles fought in footnotes and hyperlinks, rather than on roads and mountains. Words do matter–but only when they are also acts, not when their primary purpose is to prevent action or to obscure meaning. Obama is determined to preserve his own image from the reality of his actions and their consequences. That is what the speech was really all about.