What Obama said vs. what the Islamic State heard

President Barack Obama delivers his address Wednesday vowing to destroy the Islamic State.
Saul Loeb

It was a bravura performance. In a mere 14 minutes, President Barack Obama outlined a four-point “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” a Sunni extremist force that’s been plaguing the world for a decade.

In general, it was a success, if the goal was to reassure an American public outraged by the beheadings of two US journalists, and constantly bombarded by dire warnings of another 9/11 — or worse.

But how will the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) evaluate the strategy? Unlike most Americans, they know the facts on the ground, and are unlikely to be swayed by rhetoric.

In 2009, when unveiling his new strategy for Afghanistan, Obama made what was arguably his greatest miscalculation of that war: He announced a surge and a withdrawal in virtually the same breath. Geared toward the president's domestic audience, news of the coming drawdown inadvertently cheered the Taliban as it undermined local Afghan confidence.

So it makes sense to consider this latest speech from the point of view of Obama's target: the Islamic State. How will its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or his British-accented, black-masked henchmen interpret Obama’s strategy?

The strategy itself is unlikely to have the terrorists quaking in their boots just yet. They have persevered through worse — 150,000 US troops and the Sunni Awakening, for starters.

As the Taliban was fond of saying: “You have the watches, we have the time.”

Although, judging by the Rolex he sports, IS head al-Baghdadi seems to have both.

Here's how the militant group may be making sense of the framework of the new anti-IS campaign, explored through key quotes from the president's Wednesday night speech.

The Pentagon has said F-18 jets are among the aircraft used to carry out its strikes in Iraq. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

1. “First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.”

In addition to ramping up the US bombings already underway in Iraq, Obama made clear that he reserved the right to extend the raids to Syria, to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.”

With America’s overwhelming air power, this sounds like a safe bet.

It will probably make IS angry — their brutal video executions were billed as reprisal for previous airstrikes. But they are unlikely to perceive the assaults as an existential threat.

Many experts would agree with that assessment, saying airstrikes alone cannot turn the tide. The strategy may have worked up to a point in Somalia, but the lack of a viable local partner in Syria would be crippling.

To make real progress, you need ground troops to hold areas cleared by bombs.

Which brings us to the next point.

An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter fires at Islamic State militant positions. JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

2. “Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.”

Obama is sending another 475 servicemembers to Iraq, for a total of 1,600. They won’t be combat troops, the president emphasized, but rather advisers and trainers to local forces. He insists that the US “will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” but the slope is looking very slippery.

The forces will come from the Kurdish militias and the Iraqi army — “now that Iraq has formed a government,” Obama said. But IS knows that Baghdad has been unable to reach agreement on the two most important security positions in that government — defense and interior — because of the sectarian squabbling that’s plagued the country since 2006.

IS fighters also know well how to exploit these tensions to their advantage — they’ve been doing it for years.

And it was the Iraqi army, let’s not forget, that melted away like butter in the sun under an IS assault in June, despite an overwhelming numerical advantage. The Kurdish peshmerga put up a game effort, but could not prevent IS from taking big expanses of territory.

To fight IS in Syria, Obama is asking for additional resources to train and equip “the Syrian opposition.” But in a country fractured by civil war, there’s almost no hope of adequately vetting the mosaic of forces arrayed against IS. In addition, as experts warn, the various groups battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have fluid allegiances and rapidly shifting alliances. In this context, the US may end up arming the very extremist militants it’s trying to defeat. A new report looking at seized IS weapons says that’s already happening.

So IS is almost certainly relishing the prospect of additional aid to Syria’s rebels, who may be fighting them today, and aligned with them tomorrow. They could be forced to hand over their fancy weapons either way.

Syrian fighters from a group calling themselves "The Right Bomb Squad." Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

3. “Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.”

But counterterrorism will require deep cooperation from regional partners — some of them staunch enemies — which so far has been slow in coming. The US will have to light a fire under Turkey to encourage it to stem the flow of fighters into Syria through its territory. Turkey is also assisting in the flow of contraband oil, which contributes to IS’ rich coffers.

IS is well organized and well funded. It speaks the language and knows the territory.

The US will be trying to lead without getting too involved, which has not been a winning combination so far.

Without resources on the ground, what can the US really do to disrupt the well-oiled mechanism that IS has already set up?

Iraqis take water from a humanitarian aid convoy in Amerli on Sept. 1. JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

4. “Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”

This is a winner at home — especially since many of the displaced are “Christians and other religious minorities” who command a lot of sympathy in the US.

But IS is not going to be routed by refugee camps or MREs.

To conclude

Strategy aside, the IS trump card is the American public’s reluctance to re-engage in a region that has proved so costly. Sentiment is running high in the wake of the killings of freelancers James Foley, who worked for GlobalPost, and Stephen Sotloff. But once US casualties start to mount, enthusiasm could fade very quickly.

As CNN showed in a colorful, wonky chart reflecting the audience response to Obama’s speech using ”Bing Pulse” technology, the announcement of an additional 475 military personnel to be dispatched to Iraq sent the approval lines sharply south.

The only thing that displeased viewers more was Obama’s attempt to convince them that America was better off, safer, and stronger than at any time since 9/11.

“America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead,” said the president in closing.

His audience was not impressed.

Many Americans support hitting the Islamic State — 71 percent said they supported airstrikes against Sunni insurgents and 65 percent backed expanding the strikes into Syria in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Still, the country has little appetite for all-out war. Congress has a very limited ability to work with this president. And the commander in chief has a pretty big credibility problem in his own backyard.

This may be keeping the leader of the free world up at night, but IS terrorists are most likely sleeping just fine.

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