What the President Might have Said
In the past few weeks we have been shocked by the video-taped murders of American journalists by ISIL. We have also been concerned by ISIL's advance into Iraq. While these events have not been as cataclysmic as the 9/11 attacks whose anniversary we shall celebrate tomorrow, they arouse us to the same emotions. They also tempt us to make similar mistakes. Having come into office convinced that George W. Bush's responses to those events were mistaken, I am not going to follow in his footsteps and make the same mistakes again.
Yes, it would be very easy to argue ISIL's fighters threaten our homeland--but such a threat is far off. In any case, we have largely been successful in stopping terrorist attacks in the United States, with the exception of the failed attack in Times Square and the successful one in Boston in 2013. There will almost surely be other such attacks in the future, but we cannot assume that we can stop them by trying to conquer faraway parts of the world. It has now become clear that Al Queda's real goals had very little do with the United States, and the same is probably true of ISIL.
It would also be easy for me to argue, as George W. Bush often did, that terrorists like those of ISIL are not genuinely Islamic at all--that they are in fact betraying the religion of Islam. That, however, is a question that must be answered by Muslims, not by a Christian President of the United States of America like myself. We have tried telling the peoples of the Middle East what their religion compels them to do, and not do. This tactic does not work. It would also be easy for me to close this speech by once again asking God to bless the United States of America--but the Almighty, as Lincoln remarked at the moment of the greatest crisis in American history, has his own purposes.
Since the controversy over the tragic deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, a new doctrine has cropped up among us: the idea that we must use American military force to protect American diplomats abroad. This novel doctrine is at odds with international law and international order. The safety of American diplomats abroad is the responsibility of their host government. If the government clearly cannot fulfill that responsibility, we have no option but to withdraw our personnel.
Lastly, it would be easy to assume that a combination of American air strikes in Iraq and Syria and American money to train a friendly force can transform the balance of power on the ground. Yet this is clearly a fantasy. In Iraq, about 180,000 American troops managed to establish order for as long as they remained in the country, but despite billions of dollars and years of effort, they could not create a government or an Army that would command the support of Iraq's major ethnic groups or fight ISIL effectively. They now have a new Prime Minister, whom we hope will do better, but he has been unable to fill the most critical positions in the government, the Ministers of the Interior and of Defense. We hope that he will do so at once, but we cannot make political change happen in the Middle East.
The situation in Syria is even more difficult, because we oppose not only ISIL, but President Assad, who has brutally tried to suppress a rebellion for three years. The idea that the United States can create a "third force" of pro-American "moderate" rebels that can defeat both the main antagonists is, frankly, preposterous. To intervene on such a basis would be comparable to a French intervention in the American revolution against both the British and the American colonists on behalf of Indian tribes, or a foreign intervention in the ThirtyYears' War in Germany against both Catholics and Protestants, on behalf of German Jews.
Indeed I have made a mistake to try to insist upon the deposition of President Assad, a step which may easily lead to ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and chaos such as we now see in Libya. Tonight I am announcing that we would welcome any political settlement in Syria that would bring an end to the conflict, even if it left President Assad in power. In any case a settlement must respect the rights of both the Sunni majority and the Shi'ite Alawite minority in Syria, in an attempt to halt the regional religious war which threatens to tear the Middle East apart for decades.
Nor can we delude ourselves further about our ability to enlist local partners. With few exceptions, the governments of the Middle East have not truly faced the danger of revolution and civil war which they face. We too quickly assume, in defiance of the facts, that they share our objectives and endorse our strategies. This is what happened under the Bush Administration with respect to Pakistan. We gave Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to fight the Taliban and Al Queda, only to discover that the Pakistani government wanted the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan and sheltered Osama Bin Laden for many years. Meanwhile, our air strikes in Pakistan have inevitably caused civilian casualties and alienated thousands. Many of the governments in the Middle East are not unsympathetic to ISIL or hope to use it as an ally, and air strikes in Syria are bound to kill innocent people and have negative consequences as well.
I certainly cannot promise you that the restraint I intend to show in the face of this crisis will have rapid, beneficial results. The political crisis that has engulfed the Middle East will last for many years. It will not be solved without bloodshed, but it must be solved by the people of the region themselves. All parties to the conflict will resent our intervention and our advice. I call tonight for internal peace and peace among nations in the Middle East--a goal every nation should be able to endorse. This is the only hope for the peoples of this troubled region. The United States has already done too much to increase disruption and chaos in that area.
We like to think of ourselves as the world's policeman, or perhaps the world's doctor. Yet as policemen, we have neither the authority nor the capability to make the peoples of the Middle East behave in any particular way. And as doctors, we must return to the first rule of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
Thank you, and good night.