Cornell History Professor Calls President's Speech High on Rhetoric Low on Action

Historians in the News
tags: Obama, ISIS



Barry Strauss, an expert on the history of warfare, professor of History at Cornell University and the author of The Death of Caesar (Simon & Schuster: March 2015), says the President’s speech tonight was more rhetoric than action.

Strauss says:

“Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and started a Roman civil war. Yet when Caesar told the story of that war in his Commentaries he left the Rubicon out, in order to keep anyone from blaming the start of the war on him. In short, his actions spoke louder than his words.

When it comes to the United States and ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant) you have to worry that the opposite is true. Or so I judge after the President’s speech tonight. It was exceptionally well delivered and reassuring in its rhetoric but the actions don’t add up.

The President said that ISIL is a potential threat to the United States but he didn’t say that he would do whatever it takes to defeat them. He said that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy” them while also insisting that, unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would not send American combat troops to fight on foreign soil. He would use American airpower supported by allied troops.

This strikes me as a lawyer’s brief rather than a warrior’s creed. If someone is dangerous enough to fight then you fight to win. You don’t set limits like saying you won’t send in American ground troops. That’s not to say that you don’t want allies – of course you do. But if Islamic State really is so dangerous to the American homeland in the long term that the only responsible thing to do is to take them out now – as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said, then it’s irresponsible to tie our hands.

Airstrikes won’t be enough. However good allied ground troops might be, they are not likely to be anywhere near as good or as effective as American soldiers. And why should allied states be willing to risk their men in ground battle when we are not?

It sounds a little bit like Caesar saying he would only use catapults and allied troops but never send Roman legionaries into combat.”




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