President Obama gave his big speech last night on how we’re going to, in his words, “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State through a combination of airstrikes, partnerships with regional allies, and training of local forces. You should read Jim Newell’s explanation of all the problems with Obama’s strategy, the most significant being the fact that his ultimate goal is the destruction of ISIS. That’s a fine sound bite and it’s likely reassuring to the people who need their presidents to talk tough, but the gulf between saying you’ll destroy a terrorist insurgency and actually accomplishing that goal is yawning.
There are, however, plenty of politicians who endorse that strategy and want it to be pursued with as much vigor as possible. Sen. Marco Rubio is one of them. He talked to NPR’s Steve Inskeep this morning about the president’s speech, and while he generally approved of what Obama had to say, Rubio was dismayed that the president didn’t say “we’re going to defeat ISIL no matter what.”
Inskeep pressed Rubio on this point and asked whether this was a realistic objective, and Rubio gave a doozy of an answer:
Here’s the relevant transcript:
INSKEEP: And you wish that there was a stronger goal of defeating ISIL, or ISIS, or the Islamic State, no matter what. Is that a realistic goal, senator? Because insurgent groups like this can go on for years and years and years even if they’re weakened.
RUBIO: Well, absolutely it’s a realistic goal. It’s been achieved in the past. This very same insurgency was defeated during the awakening in Iraq. This is the same group that was driven out by Sunnis, who then reconstituted itself in Syria when that became an unstable and ungoverned space. So it is possible, but it’s going to take some time.
There you have it. According to Rubio, we can absolutely defeat a terrorist insurgency because we have already defeated the same insurgency that we now have to defeat. Again.
Inskeep observed that Rubio was making his point for him: ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, which drove the insurgency we devoted several years and several thousand American lives to suppressing (but not eradicating) and this new effort could drag on indefinitely. Rubio’s response? Well, that’s just the way it is:
RUBIO: That’s just reality. We wish that weren’t the case, but that’s the way it is. The world is not the way we want it to be all the time, and this is, unfortunately, a reality that we face in the 21st century. We have these groups who have the intention of killing Americans and enslaving people and we have a choice to make. We either accept that, or we defeat it, and I don’t think we should accept it.
Those two statements neatly encapsulate the tension inherent in the strategy laid out by President Obama and endorsed by Rubio. In one moment they’re promising that ISIS can be completely defeated, and in the next their acknowledging the reality of a drawn-out conflict with no visible end point. But our politics demand that wars – assuming we even call them “wars” anymore – end with glorious victory, which typically comes in the form of an utterly defeated enemy. And so our leaders promise to fight until the fighting’s done, even as they recognize that that point may very well never arrive.