JEREMY AU YONG, US BUREAU CHIEF

ISIS action puts Obama's anti-war legacy at stake

US President Obama's prime-time address had the unmistakeable impression that this was a speech he did not want to give.

Beneath the tough talk and rhetoric in United States President Barack Obama's address on Wednesday night, there was the unmistakeable impression that this was a speech he did not want to give.

The widely anticipated speech outlined a four-pronged strategy to combat the terrorist group that he refers to as ISIL but others call ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

Deployed as part of a broader coalition, the strategy includes air strikes, supporting local forces, using counterterrorism tactics and providing humanitarian aid.

He came off sounding unlike any other US president announcing that they were going to start a bombing campaign. President Obama spent equal parts of his 15 minutes on air making a case to the nation of the need for war and then trying to convince them that this was not a war.

"I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

"It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."

This compare and contrast exercise exposes some of the President's motivations on the matter. As he enters what is likely to be the lame duck portion of his tenure in office, Mr Obama's mind has turned to questions of legacy.

In that respect, the need to re-engage ISIS in Iraq and Syria must feel like a defeat to him. In many ways, his hand was forced.

A war-weary American public appears to have had a change of heart in recent months, following ISIS militants' beheading of two American journalists and then gloating about it online.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Wednesday showed significant majorities now support strikes on Iraq and Syria. Some 71 per cent say they support airs trikes in Iraq, up from 45 per cent in June, while 65 per cent say they support air strikes in Syria.

With important mid-term elections less than two months away, and criticism of his inaction growing, Mr Obama needed to do something.

Experts have suggested that part of the reason Mr Obama has demurred this long on the ISIS issue is his desire to not turn his back on the anti-war ideals that first helped him beat Mrs Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Those ideals have been a consistent feature of his presidency. Ending the war in Iraq and withdrawing American troops was a key priority of his first term and arguably one of his trademark achievements, until now.

Entering the ISIS conflict and sending forces back to Iraq thus threaten to erase one of his key legacy achievements, and Mr Obama will want to do his best to keep American involvement targeted and short.

While the American forces in Iraq will have limited roles, confined to assessment, training and support, analysts are already predicting that America is likely to become embroiled in another long, complex, open-ended conflict that will exceed President Obama's remaining two years in office.

This means he will pass on a Middle East military conflict to his successor in much the same way he inherited two wars from former president George W. Bush.

In a world filled with leaders known for being strongmen, Mr Obama has of late been stuck with a reputation of weakness.

His foreign policy track record was described damningly by Harvard diplomacy professor Nicholas Burns recently as "lacking in toughness, strategic direction, and results".

While no one is advocating a return to the trigger-happy ways of administrations past, the preoccupation with being an anti-war president means Mr Obama has little to back up tough talk.

The famously polarised domestic political environment has also crippled his foreign policy agenda. When he asked Congress for authorisation to strike Syria a year ago, he faced the very real prospect of being the first president to not be granted such a request by lawmakers.

The President ended up withdrawing that request and turning to diplomatic alternatives - a move no less damaging to his reputation.

The division in both chambers, and the likelihood of both being controlled by Republicans by next year, also mean that the President has little hope of achieving anything else on his agenda.

Immigration reform is a pipe dream as is any attempt to raise the minimum wage. The much vaunted Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement has faded from American consciousness so much that many would be surprised if it gets signed.

The anti-war legacy may well be all he has left. But an anti-war stance sits oddly on America, at a time when the world is so striven by conflict that expectations of American leadership are high.

If President Obama wants to protect his anti-war credentials, he risks destroying his longer-term legacy and putting America up for ridicule as a weak power. Unfortunately for him, trying to protect his anti-war reputation might be the very thing that prevents him from establishing a lasting legacy for his presidency.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg