Opinion: The Strategic Communication Goals Behind Obama’s ISIS Speech

September 11, 2014 8:18 PM


A version of this piece originally appeared in the Center for International Maritime Security’s NextWar blog.

Thirteen years ago America woke up to the Long War. Sept. 10 was a sadly appropriate time for the President Barack Obama to address the continuation of the conflict, now opposing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).

The message of the speech: This Long War will continue to be so.

Obama’s intent was to explain the threat of ISIS, then walk the fine line of both destroying ISIS and avoiding the entanglement he sees in America’s 13 years of ground war. In short, America will destroy ISIS, but America will not be the one to destroy ISIS – America will look to Arab partners, the Iraqi military, and the Syrian opposition, with the support of American advisers and airpower.

Let’s go into the details of looking at this speech, not for the policy, but as a piece of strategic communication – the audiences, the messages, and the intended effect.

To Everyone:ISIS Is A Threat And Will Be Destroyed

“While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, [ISIS] leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

This was considered by many the president’s moment to explain, particularly to the American people, explicitly the threat posed by ISIS, which he did by drawing the thread between opportunity, capability, and intent: the proven brutality and capability of ISIS, the stated aims, and their ability to get people of bad intent to us. This was likely aimed at European audiences as well.

“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are . . . This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

That message and its purpose probably doesn’t need any explanation.

To Middle Eastern Actors in General:
A Grip, but Loose

“This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region . . . This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground.”

Whether we can rely on the emergence of an enemy’s enemies coalition or an inclusive Iraqi government is to be seen, but this speech was likely meant as a final signaling to those in and around this cross-border conflict that the United States will not be the one to “contain” this situation, and that the ongoing proxy war may threaten to consume all of them. The thinking may be that regional actors, once realizing the United States will not “swoop in” will turn on this conflict’s most disturbing symptom rather than each other.

No particular partners are mentioned other than the new Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, and the vague “Syrian opposition”—the particulars of a specific Syrian opposition group, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many of the Gulf states that choose to playi a part in extending this crisis are left out. This is likely on purpose, requiring no explanations of whose name was said, left out, or why.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

The division of Iraqi and Kurdish forces should be recognized in the language. This could be a natural result of the bifurcation of the two forces’ effort in fighting and the desire to recognize the enormous contribution of the Kurds or a more subtle political intent.

To Congress:
Not Letting Go

“We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

That the United States is now firmly aimed at ISIS, and a lot of resources—though not troops—will be aimed in their direction. This no surprise to anyone. The president communicated two specific points to Congress: he need not seek their specific approval, but he wants to engage them and desperately wishes for them to expand their engagement in Syria.

“I have the authority to address the threat from ISIS. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger . . . It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.”

This is pretty clear. Some have speculated the president would seek Congress’s approval. He, fairly safely, presumes to tacitly have it amidst the unclear debate some are having on whether he needs it explicitly. Likely, this is also why he mentioned ISIS’s association with al Qaeda.

“Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIS, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people—a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.”

Here the president is extending the discussion from earlier discussions on involvement in Syria. This is a point he does not plan on giving up, though in this speech it was buried in the larger narrative of his over-arching strategy. Having previously discussed the brutality of ISIS, he wishes to show how Syrian president Bashir al Assad cannot be a partner in its defeat—having already shown the same brutality. Realists would debate this point—but the president illustrates throughout the speech an intent to engage soft power and counter-ideology. This will be something he will continue to push in the future.

To the American People:
Will Not Go Past Point of “No Return”, but Manage Expectations

The president is trying to establish certain ground rules for his plans in order to generate continued support of the citizenry.

“As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq . . . I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

First, the United States will not go full-bore into this conflict, “returning” or being “dragged” back into what it has been used to for a decade. This was the great fear when the Syria debate arose, and one Obama would like to avoid. This is likely meant to “cut off at the pass” the likely debate of mission creep, or at least hold off discussion and a potential negative consensus if it does happen.

“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm . . . It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIS.”

Second, keep expectations realistic. The strategy laid out is a long one—and the statement that, “we can’t erase every trace of evil from the world” is an acceptance that many more similar threats will come in the future. The president likely wishes to avoid any sense of triumphalism or expectation of a quick victory that will later be dashed and undermine support for the mission.

“ . . . any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and -women who carry out these missions.”

Third, setting up the expectation of risk: With personnel in-theater and aircraft overhead, any discussion of this being “low risk” would immediately undermine the mission if/when our people are killed/kidnapped by ISIS or if an aircraft were to go down. The reality-check on the longevity and risk of this conflict up front may not create the initial surge of support, but will create a more sturdy and realistic appreciation for what we’re doing that may last longer.

To Middle Easterners & Potential Western ISIS “Converts”:

As stated throughout the speech—the United States is committed to the region, but the dialogue of “airpower”, standoff “counter-insurgency”, and advisors is to push the narrative that the US will not be occupiers again. This is likely a long-shot attempt to communicate to those on the fence about ISIS or worried about “western imperialism.” Part of that denial of a “imperialist” or “holy war” narrative is also the continued emphasis the United States is placing on ISIS not being “Islamic” and the United States not being at war with Islam. It is unlikely that this message would reach anyone in the conflict zone.

It may, however, be for those in Western Nations or more stable neighbors to the conflict who would follow ISIS’s new social media campaign into the maw of jihad, as Anwar al-Alwaki convinced some westerners to do.


Some will argue with the strategy itself, as well as the accuracy or value of allusions to Somalia and Yemen, but as a piece of stand-alone strategic communication for the plan being put forward, the speech was straightforward.

It clearly illustrates the reasons the Unites States is engaged with ISIS and the commitment of the United States to its own safety, as well as a commitment to regional allies—those willing to commit to their own safety,

Few communications are more “strategic” than those that come from the Bully Pulpit, and this was a solid piece of that kind of communication.

Whether this is the right plan for the United States is for us to argue and—as time goes on—see.

Lt. Matthew Hipple, USN

Lt. Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer. He writes for Proceedings, USNI Blog, Small Wars Journal, and War on the Rocks and is the director of the NEXTWAR blog at the Center for International Maritime Security.

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