President Barack Obama's speech tonight about the San Bernardino shooting and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq was a major step forward for at least one reason: He explicitly called for a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) to combat ISIS. He's done that before, but doing it in front of a primetime national audience might actually have some impact.
As it stands, the president is waging military actions under the terms of the AUMF that was passed on September 14, 2001. That declaration may have ushered in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) but it is clearly illegitimate to use its directives in our attacks on ISIS, which didn't even exist in its current form at the time of the AUMF's passage.
Yet it's also clear that getting an AUMF past a Republican House and Senate will be no easy matter. Even as many Republicans (and virtually all the GOP presidential candidates) excoriate the president for lacking any strategy in the Middle East, they also refuse to forge a document that would both spell out and limit his options. Earlier this year, for instance, a possible AUMF fell apart over whether the terms were too broad or too narrow, with Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul articulating the competing positions:
Rand Paul offered an amendment—which some Senate Democrats backed—making clear the resolution authorized the president to fight ISIS only in Syria and Iraq. Hawks, by contrast, considered the resolution too narrow. Marco Rubio said it should read: "'We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.' Period."
Tonight, the president outlined the same strategy for going after ISIS in Syria and Iraq that's been in use for months now. The U.S. and its allies will continue air strikes and arm opposition groups but leave the fighting to Arab forces in the area. Except for American special forces, whose numbers can only be expected to grow. It was good to hear the president recognize that nobody wants to see another decade of American occupation of Iraq or anywhere else. Yet he also stressed working toward a negotiated end of the Syrian civil war as almost a precondition to destryong ISIS (such a ceasefire would allow all the other forces involved to "focus" on ISIS, he said). But the Syrian civil war is almost certainly not going to happen any time soon, especially given the interests of Russia and Iran, who back the Assad regime, and the interests of the United States, which has been committed to regime change for a long time now.
As Obama knows, Assad's regime, not ISIS, is the primary factor behind the refugee crisis, killing eight civilians for every one murdered by ISIS. The most effective anti-ISIS fighters in the region are Kurdish, whose interests are directly at odds with the governments of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey, creating a situation that is almost insoluble in its political complexity. Coming from a president whose foreign policy adventures have been almost universally disastrous and who has earlier dismissed ISIS as junior varsity and thoroughly containted, this isn't exactly comforting.
But yes, Congress, do your job and issue a new AUMF specifically regarding ISIS (or any other group that we are already waging war against). It should be difficult to draft and it should be as explicit as possible in setting meaningful limits as to where and why and how we're involved— no "We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.' Period" please. Or you should have the courage of your convictions and stop funding war actions, which include countless drone strikes in countries with whom we are not at war, that are not authorized.
In terms of domestic initiatives, it seems as if Obama's only real purpose was to show some concern for American fears about mass shootings and domestic terrorism. It was heartening to hear him both honor American Muslims in general while calling for a rejection of jihadist tendencies. But his warmed-over gun-control proposals haven't flown in the past and he didn't even bother grappling with the fact that gun violence is at recent historic lows. Nor did he discuss exactly what it might mean to intensify efforts to engage the Muslim community and "take a harder look" at people who come to the United States from war zones and other geo-political war zones. That he misdescribed how Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in San Bernardino, entered the country hardly engenders confidence (she entered on a K1 visa). His belief that the "no-fly list" is some gold standard of constitutional process or useful law enforcement tool is similarly problematic.
Republicans and Democrats have been talking up the need to reinstate the recently ended NSA bulk collection of phone metadata (Marco Rubio hit CNN earlier today to do just that) and Attorney General Loretta Lynch followed in the Obama administration's disturbing tradition of attacking free speech the other day:
"Now obviously this is a country that is based on free speech," she said. "but when it edges towards violence, when we see the potential for someone lifting that mantle of anti-Muslim rhetoric or, as we saw after 9/11, violence against individuals… when we see that, we will take action."…
"I think it's important that as we again talk about the importance of free speech we make it clear that actions predicated on violent talk are not America. They are not who we are, they are not what we do, and they will be prosecuted," she concluded.
What exactly any of that means is unclear but it sure doesn't sound good. More on that here.
What Obama couldn't offer tonight was any reason we should believe that doing the same thing we've been doing overseas or domestically is going to have a different outcome anytime soon.
Which might well be an epitaph for his entire time in office.