Obama resists panic-induced shift in anti-terror strategy
President’s rare Oval Office address in wake of California attack aims to calm fears
US president Barack Obama during his address to the nation from the Oval Office. Photograph: AFP Photo
President Barack Obama spoke to the American people in a rare televised Oval Office address – only the third of his presidency – in order to make a point: his campaign against Islamic State is working.
In the wake of last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which appears to have been perpetrated in the name of, rather than directed by, the militant group, the president used his prime-time address to try to reassure a nervous public that he knows that he’s doing.
The choice of a little-used location for his address underscored not only the public concern about further threats in the aftermath of the Paris and California attacks but also how Obama has struggled to convince people that his counterterrorism plan can be effective.
His direct appeals were aimed at circumventing Republicans who have been cranking up the rhetoric about Muslims, weak immigration laws and terrorist threats in a feverish presidential election campaign.
Obama’s problem is that the Republicans are not playing election politics: there is a genuine and deep public unease about his plan.
A CNN/ORC poll, released before his Sunday-night address, said that 60 per cent of Americans surveyed disapproved of the president’s response to terrorism and that an even greater number, 68 per cent, believed the campaign against Islamic State had not been aggressive enough. A majority, 53 per cent, even said that the US should send ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the militants.
No shift in policy
Obama told a peak viewing audience that “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase” but argued that his strategy was equipped to deal with this. He described the San Bernardino shootings last week as “an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people”.
“I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” he said. “Well, here’s what I want you to know: the threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.”
Much like the threat the US faces, the president’s own strategy to deal with Islamic State has evolved.
From dismissively describing the group as a “JV [junior-varsity] team” in January 2014 to announcing on the eve of the Islamic State-led Paris attacks that the group was “contained” in Iraq and Syria, the president has done little to inspire confidence.
Since then, 16 months of air strikes have been stepped up in Iraq and Syria, and the US is sending a permanent “expeditionary force” of special forces to fight Islamic State independently of local fighters.
“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like Isil want,” said Mr Obama in his address, using his administration’s name for Islamic State.
For a president who won his two elections on a promise to end wars, embarking on a more aggressive combat strategy is anathema.
Air strikes, special forces and helping local forces regain control of their own country would achieve “a more sustainable victory”, he said. “We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.”
More and more, the fight is coming home, and Obama acknowledged how the terrorist threat has changed. No longer are terrorists seeking to commit multifaceted attacks, such as 9/11, but they have “turned to less complicated acts of violence”, such as the San Bernardino shootings.
In an appeal that is unlikely to move a strongly pro-gun US Congress, Mr Obama called for tighter gun laws to “make it harder” for terrorists to kill by being able to buy assault rifles.
In a swipe at Republicans, he said beating Islamic State would not depend on “tough talk or abandoning our values, or giving into fear”.
Americans must not push Muslims away, nor should Muslims ignore the threat of extremism in their communities, he said.
One Republican candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, responded to Mr Obama’s address by saying that nothing in it “will assuage people’s fears”.
He will likely be proved right. Regardless of the significance of choice of location for his broadcast, Obama said little that was new beyond some harder rhetoric.
For a fervently anti-war president who resists knee-jerk responses to panic and fear, there will be little change in a strategy that most Americans believe isn’t working.