So Washington has decided to go to war against the fanatics of the Islamic State. Or has it? After President Barack Obama addressed the American people from the White House last Wednesday and spelled out his proposed strategy for dealing with the threat posed by IS, his administration quickly tripped and fell headlong into a crater of confusion. Less than 24 hours after Obama's speech, Secretary of State John Kerry, America's top diplomat, flatly denied that the US was going to war against IS (also called ISIS or ISIL), insisting instead that it was simply a "major counterterrorism operation."
Speaking to CBS, Kerry said that "'war' is the wrong terminology."
Kerry's remarks raised eyebrows in Washington and beyond, for although Obama had not used the "W" word himself, the impression many had was that America was in fact putting itself on a war footing.
Indeed, in an interview with Fox News, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was at a loss for words after listening to Kerry's remarks, telling his interviewer, "It's hard to find a response to that. Then what was the president talking about last night?" That same day, the muddle multiplied when National Security Adviser Susan Rice appeared on CNN, where anchorman Wolf Blitzer asked, "Is the United States at war right now with ISIS?" It "sounds like war to me," Blitzer said, adding, "Is it fair to call it a war?" "Well Wolf, I don't know whether you want to call it a war or a sustained counterterrorism campaign," Rice replied. "We'll not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war, so I think this is very different from that."
What many found troubling and confusing about Kerry and Rice's remarks was that the US had already carried out some 160 air-strikes against IS and had deployed 1,600 troops to Iraq in various roles, and the president wanted to expand this further, authorizing strikes in Syria and aiming to build a multinational coalition. If that's not war, what is? One day later, on Friday of last week, the Obama administration promptly flopped after having previously flipped, changing its tune and deploying the "W" word in describing its plans. At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby was adamant: "Make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war and continue to be at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates."
And back over at the White House, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said that, "In the same way that the United States is at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates...the United States is at war with ISIL."
If all this sounds confusing, that's because it is.
Rather than faking out the enemy, the Obama administration merely succeeded in faking itself out. And the root of this problem lies with the president himself, who over the past few weeks has broadcast convolution bordering on clumsiness.
Last month, he famously told journalists that he did not have a strategy for dealing with IS. Subsequently, he indicated that the group could be contained, and then last week he said the US would "degrade and ultimately destroy" the terrorist group. Counterterrorism, war, containment, destruction – it is simply dizzying how many different positions Obama and his people have taken on what may be the gravest terror threat to the US and its allies since 9/11.
IS has more than doubled in size since June and now has over 30,000 men under arms, which makes it larger than the army of Kuwait. They control a territory the size of Belgium, and are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars which they looted when they took the Iraqi city of Mosul. This "cancer," as Obama has called it, has steadily been growing in power and influence, and now may be eyeing Jordan and other countries as its next targets.
This is a danger that must be confronted head-on, with overwhelming force. IS must be crushed and completely destroyed before it undermines what little remains of Middle East stability, threatens US allies and interests and further inflames sectarian conflicts in the region.
The only way to accomplish this is to enter the fray with a clear and unambiguous objective in mind, one that the American people and US allies can comprehend and rally around. But, sadly, instead of displaying Churchillian clarity of purpose, Obama is exhibiting Carteresque uncertainty and indecision.
After all, if you have difficulty even uttering the word "war," how can you possibly hope to wage one?