It’s long been said that the Oval Office changes its occupants in ways only those who have served in the small club of presidents can appreciate.
Nowhere was that more apparent than Wednesday night when Barack Obama, the once youthful politician who just six years ago eschewed American interventionism across the globe, became the fourth graying-haired president in the last quarter century to ask the American people to support a decision for expanded military action in Iraq.
Mr. Obama’s enemy was far different than the cruel dictator named Saddam Hussein pursued by his predecessors. The enemy this time is a ruthless terrorist group named the Islamic State that few Americans had heard of before it beheaded two American reporters on camera this summer.
But in the end his justifications for acting against a new threat of Sunni extremism mirrored those made by his predecessors against Saddam’s cruelty or al Qaeda’s campaign to rule by terror.
For those who could close their eyes for a moment during the president’s 15-minute speech, the arguments Mr. Obama made for American interventionism sounded much like those offered by the first of the four presidents to announce military action in Iraq, George Herbert Walker Bush.
Bush 41, as he is known today, told the world in 1991 that America would lead a coalition of the willing to beat back Saddam’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait.
Mr. Obama on Wednesday night nearly echoed that line. “Tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” he declared.
The first President Bush explained to the world why the U.S. could no longer wait to take action in Iraq, cited unchecked brutality.
“Saddam Hussein systematically raped, pillaged and plundered a tiny nation, no threat to his own. He subjected the people of Kuwait to unspeakable atrocities —and among those maimed and murdered, innocent children.”
Mr. Obama cited similar atrocities in explaining why new action was needed in a country just a few short years ago he gleefully withdrew Americans troop from.
“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff,” the president said.
The elder Mr. Bush sought Congress’ blessing and said he would act in accordance with United Nations precepts. Mr. Obama did the same.
And Mr. Obama, like Bush 41, described a military mission that would share its risk with multiple partners and be limited in objectives.
The president who appeared Wednesday night in American homes was more confident, more decisive and more consistent with past American doctrine than the one who drew a red line in Syria he could not fulfill, or who dismissed the Islamic State as junior varsity terror organization just as it was gathering steam or who just a few short days ago declared he didn’t have a plan yet for the gathering terrorist threat.
In fact, he sounded much like Mr. Bush — a posture likely to engender some confidence in an American public suddenly frustrated and demoralized by Mr. Obama’s recent performance.
But words alone won’t measure the success of this prime-time speech. Mr. Obama must truly prove he can fully assemble and lead an effective coalition. He must ensure Americans aren’t struck on these shores by the new threat. And he must avoid the equivocation and confusion that led an entire world to doubt American leadership in recent days.
Those will be the benchmarks of true success.