In his public statements on the U.S. campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria — an effort that has included air strikes in the two countries and the deployment of military advisers in Iraq — the president and his advisers have assiduously avoided uttering the word “war” to describe U.S. actions. It’s a sign that while Obama has not shifted the U.S. away from the “perpetual war footing” he decried in a landmark 2013 speech, he hasn’t come to terms with his administration’s role in expanding U.S. military action overseas.
Insofar as Obama has uttered the word “war” in his statements on ISIS, it’s been to delineate what the U.S. will not do. Addressing the nation from the White House on September 10, the president vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS,” but promised not to “get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”
Listen to Obama’s remarks, however, and it’s clear that the president favors a few "special" words to describe the totally-not-a-war war the U.S. is waging in Iraq and Syria.
- “Effort” Perhaps Obama’s favorite euphemism for what the U.S. is up to. In his September 10 address, Obama distinguished the “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan from the “effort” against ISIS. “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” Obama explained. In his weekly address on Saturday, the president said that “[t]his is an effort that America has the unique ability to lead.”
- “Process” Asked in August 28 press conference whether he planned to seek congressional authorization for military action against ISIS, Obama sounded like the caricature of the professorial, technocratic president his critics purport him to be. “You know, I have consulted with Congress throughout this process,” Obama replied. “I am confident that as commander in chief I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently.”
- “Fight” As close as Obama’s willing to get to saying the W-word. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday before departing for the United Nations, Obama said that U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria were “not America’s fight alone,” echoing his September 20 address in which he said that it was “a fight in which all countries have a stake.”
- “Campaign” Not unlike a swing through Iowa and New Hampshire! Explaining his expansion of the war into Syria on Tuesday, the president noted, “I made clear that as part of this campaign the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria so that these terrorists can’t find safe haven anywhere.”
- "A Moment of American Leadership.” Concluding his radio address on Saturday, Obama called this “a moment of American leadership … a moment we will meet.” Leadership. Exceptionalism. America.
In other words, this war is totally, definitely not a war.