Doublethink in Obama’s ISIS/ISIL Declaration

“Taking out” ISIS / ISIL

President Obama spoke to the nation last night (full text here) and announced that the US is going to “take out” the Islamic State “wherever they exist”, “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”. He went on to say that we’ll be carrying out many airstrikes against targets in both Iraq and Syria.

We’re going to war in the Middle East. Again.

ISIS/ISIL is terrible. Most of the world agrees. Something needs to be done about them. Most of the world agrees with that, too. And the US is going to “lead a broad coalition” into war to stop it. They say it’ll be quick; they say it’ll be clean. I’ve heard that before, but maybe they’re right this time.

Obama isn’t seeking Congressional approval for this, and that makes me really uneasy. Technically he needn’t, since he gave notice tonight and it (for now) falls within the 60 days of military action allowed by the War Powers Resolution, and yeah, Congress can’t agree on anything anyway—but the checks and balances are there for a reason. If Congress can’t agree that going to war is necessary, is it necessary? Should it be?

Asking Congress to provide money for training rebels in Syria isn’t the same as asking for a declaration of war, and asking for bipartisan support after announcing what we’re going to do isn’t really the same as asking Congress to participate in the process.

Maybe it’s not really a “war”. Maybe it’s just a police action or something.


George Orwell coined the word doublethink in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and described it thus:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed…” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I think Obama is asking us to hold two contradictory beliefs when he justifies immediate military action to address threats to our nation and then says ISIS hasn’t threatened us yet.

In tonight’s speech, Obama said (emphasis mine):

“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.”

and continued:

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Threaten us and you will be bombed. ISIS is threatening us, so we’re going to bomb them. Right?

“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”

So, they might threaten us at some point in the future, but not yet. But we’re still going to bomb them.

Doublethink is believing two things that contradict each other. Isn’t it doublethink to say that terrorists are threatening us, could threaten us, have threatened us, and have not specifically threatened us, all in the same 15-minute speech?

So what?

Mr. Obama, if there’s a clear case for going to war against the Islamic State, make it. Tell us why. Be specific about what you plan to do and why it will help.

If you won’t bring it to Congress, acknowledge that and tell us why. We’re smart people; tell us why you think this is necessary.

But don’t ask us to go to war to defend against a threat that you aren’t sure exists. If we’re fighting to protect ourselves, tell us about the threat to the USA. If we’re protecting other people, tell us that—and justify it.

Saying we’re going to destroy ISIS because they threaten us even though they haven’t threatened us yet? Not good enough.

Don’t ask us to kill people just because they might threaten us in the future.


(Conor Friedersdorf says many similar things in his article for The Atlantic. Jack Goldsmith does the same in Time.).

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