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One incredibly revealing line from Obama's ISIS speech

Obama explains his strategy for addressing ISIS.
Obama explains his strategy for addressing ISIS.
Saul Loeb/Pool/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There's a lot to say about Obama's big speech announcing what's essentially a third war in Iraq — here's the full text, and an explanation of the thinking behind the new strategy, if you're curious.

But one passage from Obama's speech — where he defines the nature of the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — is really striking, and worth pulling out in detail:

[ISIS] poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East - including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region - including to the United States.

Did you catch that? Obama is admitting, tacitly, that ISIS is not currently a threat to the American homeland. It "threatens" the broader Middle East, but only "could pose a growing threat" to the United States.

The US is attacking ISIS because it one day might be a threat, not because it's capable of executing an attack in the US right now.

On one level, this is a fairly realistic assessment of the ISIS threat. Independent experts on jihadi groups believe that ISIS is neither super-interested in nor super-capable of hitting the American homeland right now. That said, they also agree that if ISIS grew stronger, it very well might launch attacks on the United States. So in that sense, Obama is pretty accurate.

On another level, it makes his decision to launch a major military campaign much more confusing. Obama compared his military campaign to the ongoing drone strike campaign in Yemen, but that's wrong in two ways. First, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — AQ's Yemen branch — is more than a potential threat to the US. It's already attempted several attacks on the US homeland.

But the US war in Yemen is much smaller. In the past month, the US has launched 150 airstrikes in Iraq. That's more than the US launched in Yemen in all of 2013, according to New America Foundation data. This is a much bigger war against a seemingly less significant target.

On a third level, it makes Obama's speech deeply ironic: Obama is using George W. Bush arguments to launch a war in Iraq.

Bush argued that the United States needed to launch wars against regimes that might sponsor terrorist groups before they were imminent threats to the US. Obama is applying a version of that preventative war logic to ISIS.

Now, the comparison isn't exact. There's a compelling case that ISIS, an utterly brutal jihadi group that has already beheaded two Americans, will one day turn its eye towards the American homeland. It's certainly more compelling than Bush's case that Saddam might sponsor nuclear terrorism against the United States. What's more, the military campaign Obama is proposing is extraordinarily more modest than Bush's full-scale invasion of Iraq.

But the irony here is unmistakable. Barack Obama, who won the presidency on the strength of his opposition to Bush's war in Iraq, is now launching a new campaign in Iraq — on fairly similar reasons.

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