In his address to the nation tonight President Obama conveyed much of significance to the American people. His reminder that ISIS does not represent the larger faith of Islam and his call for Americans to continue to treat one another with fairness and respect irrespective of creed were vitally important. His declaration that the United States will prevail because we are on the right side of history was reassuring.
I have long been a supporter of the President, and I trust that his efforts in our defense are earnest and reflect what he perceives to be the highest strategic wisdom. However, even with the positive steps that he took tonight, I fear that the President has mishandled both the politics and the strategy of the conflict with ISIS in ways that could profoundly tarnish his legacy if not redressed.
In political terms the President has seemingly underestimated the severity of unease stirred by ISIS's barbarity and resilience. Whatever the view may be like from the White House situation room, from the perspective of Anytown USA the threat from ISIS seems to be intensifying in ways that would justify a much higher degree of urgency than has been projected in the President's public pronouncements. As a continuing stream of grotesque images fills the nightly news, the perception grows that some radical change in strategy is warranted to confront this threat. In that climate the President's measured assessments and calls for incremental tactical change appear out of touch with the severity of the crisis.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there are indeed changes in strategy that might be effective. The most salient of these is our posture with regard to the Syrian civil war. The President is no doubt right that we should refrain from entering another major land war in the Middle East with US ground forces. Since that is so, however, we must find a way of uniting local forces within Syria and Iraq for the fight against ISIS, a task that can never be achieved as long as the Assad regime remains in power.
In his speech tonight President Obama listed resolving the Syrian civil war as priority number four in his plan to defeat ISIS, a stance that is consonant with what has been our policy since the Syrian civil war first began. If President Obama wanted to broadcast the adoption of a new strategy (and he should), he should have made it clear that the removal of the Assad regime is now America's first priority in the struggle against ISIS, a goal for which we expect the compliance of all powers operating within the region, including Moscow. The removal of Assad will no doubt prove difficult in the face of Russian opposition, but if it is to be achieved at all it first must be articulated as a non-negotiable security concern by President Obama. At the very least, risking political capital in this way on a shift in strategic priorities would reassure citizens back here in the United States that our leaders understand the urgency of the crisis and are undertaking bold action to redress it.
The President is no doubt right that in the struggle with ISIS, America sits on the right side of history. But he would be foolish to assume that we will remain there if we allow the political climate in our nation to deteriorate. As Franklin Roosevelt warned, fear is a corrosive force that can eat away at the foundations of civil society and the rule of law. If, partly from a belief that our leaders are asleep at the wheel, fear metastisizes throughout the body politic, it will lead to spasms of sectarian violence and institutionalized discrimination against Muslim-Americans that undermine our democratic system. At that point, the right side of history might look like a distant and hazily remembered place. Like the President I have faith in the resilience of our nation, and I do not doubt that any dark times ISIS inspired would be temporary. We are best advised, however, to send ISIS swiftly to its scrapheap, so that we may continue to enjoy the view from history's right side uninterrupted.