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Conviction and vigour in Obama's IS speech

Conviction and vigour in Obama's IS speech

There were relatively few plot twists for a prime time television spectacle but you have to hand it to the leading man: he hasn't put in such a convincing performance in a long time.

The main points of Barack Obama's widely telecast speech to the American public tonight did not depart significantly from those which had already been released to the media and the wider public earlier in the day and week. The President promised a significantly expanded US-led military campaign to target the rising threat of the violent Islamic State (IS) movement, which he identified as not only a danger to the Middle East but also increasingly to US citizens (Obama referenced the murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff).

This plan includes US airstrikes in Syria, following an earlier reluctance to become directly involved in tackling IS there, and the deployment of a further 475 military advisers to Iraq. The President also called on Congress to support further measures including the training and arming (reportedly to the tune of US$500 million) of the Free Syrian Army, set up to oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime, to take up the new challenge of repelling IS.

Again, however, he stopped short of committing US ground troops to another potentially deadly and protracted campaign in a far-flung location.

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere. [fold]

Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In Obama's words themselves, there was even a fairly significant change in the recent rhetoric emanating from the White House, which has implied that the US needed to accept a lesser role in dictating world affairs and embrace a greater degree of multilateralism.

Towards the end of the speech the President tied the current mission against IS into a more familiar trumpeting of American exceptionalism and the nation's stand for 'freedom, for justice, for dignity.' At times it strongly recalled the efforts of his predecessor George W Bush, as with the pronouncement that 'It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilise the world against terrorists' – words that take on more significance in light of Obama's Bush-like willingness to circumvent the established protocols of Congress and other institutions.

These developments understandably have many worried that we will see a return to larger scale war and another of those painful legacies of instability and lawlessness that produced the conditions conducive to the rise of IS in the first place. Obama categorically denies that this is the path down which the US and its allies are traveling, but could the President's sense of returning vitality belie some more worrying truth?

Photo courtesy of @WhiteHouse.

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