President Obama gave a primetime address last night on terrorism and guns in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre. Anytime there is an address like this, it's a good reason to be fearful. But we shouldn't be afraid of terrorism; we should be afraid of what our government intends to do in response to terrorism. The reaction is far more dangerous than the actual act, as France has been proving lately. And given that major war escalations are generally announced in a very official way, an unexpected address by the President is very rarely a good thing.
With all that said, yesterday's address could have been significantly worse. Here's our breakdown.
Although it sounds odd to say, the President does deserve some credit for not escalating the Syrian conflict further in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks. To be clear, the US is still much more involved than it should be, the strategy is full of internal contradictions, and it's clearly not making the country safer. But if we're going to be honest, President Obama could have easily gotten away with inserting a massive "surge" of ground troops after Paris, and he hasn't done that. In the speech, President Obama indicated that we needed to stay the course. This won't work, as the last year has clearly demonstrated, but preserving the status quo is about as much as we could reasonably hope for. Kudos to Obama for not making his policies worse.
President Obama made a mild nod to the rule of law, calling for Congress to authorize the year old war against ISIS. On the one hand, this is a good thing because a vote means there's at least a chance to exert pressure on politicians and possibly end the war, however improbable that may be. On the downside, Obama's statement reminds us that the war the US is currently fighting is illegal and virtually no one in Congress cares about that fact. That's obviously a bit of a downer.
Additionally, President Obama continued to emphasize gun control as part of the solution to terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino. We've written previously about the questionable effectiveness of gun control legislation and the likely adverse consequences of such policies on minorities. It is thus dubious that such policies would be meaningful in stopping terrorists. If you're willing to go on a suicide mission, the prospect of a charge for gun possession probably won't be a major deterrent. But to the extent that Obama's focus on gun control diverts attention from ramping up domestic surveillance or more aggressive military intervention overseas, this is a positive sign.
Unfortunately, in Obama's efforts to focus on gun control, he zeroed in specifically on his proposal to ban sales to people on the so-called terror watch list (sometimes also referred to as the no-fly list). This sounds superficially appealing. Don't sell guns to terrorists. Duh. But the problem is that they're really just "suspected" terrorists, and the way one gets put on the list is deeply arbitrary and lacks any semblance of due process. Along with Guantanamo Bay, the no-fly list could basically be the emblem of horrible, unconstitutional policies in the Bush years, and now Obama is trying to legitimize for the sake of moving the ball forward on gun control. This is repellent and the tactic should outrage people on the left and the right. Trevor Timm at The Guardian seems to exhibit the proper level of indignation on this subject if you're interested in learning more about it.
The next thing worth calling attention to in Obama's speech relates to his justification for the current military strategy of airstrikes and special forces alone in the fight against ISIS. Here's a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):
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. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.
The strategy that we are using now -- airstrikes, Special Forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country -- that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory. And it won’t require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.
See what he's doing here? On the one hand, he's acknowledging the obvious point, made here and elsewhere, that ISIS wants to provoke a military response. He also cites one of the quintessential arguments for nonintervention that "our presence" is the most helpful recruiting tool imaginable for extremist groups. Good so far.
But then in the very next sentence, he explains that the US strategy is airstrikes and Special Forces. Don't these count as a "presence" too? Do Syrians and Iraqis and Yemenis etc. simply not realize they're being bombed by the US and its allies? No, that's preposterous. They know they're being bombed, and they know the US is behind most of it. And obviously, this is a powerful recruiting tool. There are innocent people in the Middle East and North Africa that live with the knowledge that a drone could be hovering overhead at anytime preparing to launch missiles at them. That is a presence, and Obama clearly understands this. He just doesn't have the political courage to change course and stop fueling the chaos.