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News analysis

Obama's speech on ISIS fails to reassure an anxious nation

At a time when his unmatched ability to deliver soaring rhetoric was perhaps most sorely needed, US President Barack Obama turned in a sub-par performance.

That was the broad consensus from observers from across political stripes after his rare televised address from the Oval Office.

While there was still much to applaud in his strong call for tolerance, the 13-minute address fell short when it came to its primary aim: reassuring an anxious nation that his administration had the situation under control.

 

At the heart of the problem is what appears to be a disagreement between the administration and a growing chorus of critics about whether its strategy to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is working.

"The strategy that we are using now - air strikes, 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," he said again on Sunday night.

PRESIDENT OBAMA ON...

FIGHTING TERRORISM

We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers.

WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED

If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate. That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.

GUN CONTROL

Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies - no matter how effective they are - cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do - and must do - is make it harder for them to kill.

DISCRIMINATION

It is the responsibility of all Americans - of every faith - to reject discrimination... It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose.

And that sort of language was never going to be good enough for an American audience now looking for bravado from their commander-in-chief rather than calm reassurance.

As Mr Patrick Chovanec, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said: "Basically, the takeaway is: Nice speech.

"Speeches won't defeat ISIS. So what now?"

Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass similarly tweeted that the speech lacked key elements required to reassure the public. "Two things missing from @potus (President Obama's) address: intensification of military strategy; preparing Americans for additional domestic acts of terrorism," he wrote on Twitter.

The sharpest criticisms, unsurprisingly, came from the Republicans, many accusing Mr Obama of a weak, partisan response.

Said Senator Marco Rubio: "I think, not only did the President not make things better tonight, I fear he may have made things worse in the minds of many Americans. This is not a time for ideological silliness."

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, in turn, implied that Mr Obama had not seized the urgency of the moment.

"This is the war of our time," he said. "It should not be business as usual. We need a war-time commander-in-chief who is ready to lead this country and the free world to victory."

Even within his own party, it is not clear how much support there is for the current strategy.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton produced a deafening silence by not responding to the speech as Republican candidates fell over themselves to condemn it.

She had only given comments on a news show earlier in the day, and those were far from complimentary. "We're not winning, but it's too soon to say that we are doing everything we need to do," she said.

In fact, there were reports that one of the reasons Mr Obama had decided to deliver the address in the first place was political pressure from Democratic Party leaders, who were worried that the President had not been assertive enough on the issue.

His poll numbers on the matter have also been on a steady decline. A CNN/ORC poll that was released hours before the speech only served to compound his troubles, as it showed a growing number of Americans distrusting his ability to cope with the terror threat.

Some 60 per cent said they disapproved of his handling of terrorism, up by nearly 10 percentage points since May.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a continual string of bad news coming out of Syria. Yesterday, the President's envoy to the US-led coalition denied allegations from Syria's Foreign Ministry that coalition warplanes had hit a Syrian army camp, killing three.

The spate of ISIS-linked attacks in recent months in Paris, Egypt and San Bernardino also seem to contradict the Obama administration's description of a working strategy in the Middle East and his insistence on not putting the United States on a war footing.

Said Dr Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of defence, at a recent conference: "They say they have rolled back ISIS... ISIS hasn't really lost a major city in months.

"I agree we are at war, the problem is this country doesn't want to go to war."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis: Speech fails to reassure an anxious nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe