Five Key Shifts in the War on ISIL: The President’s Address on 12/6/15.

By Tom Demerly for


The President made several substantive statements during his address to the nation on Sunday, December 6, 2015. In the diplomatic subtlety that is a necessity from a U.S. President he signaled five key shifts in U.S. policy and additional changes in the perspective of his administration. Here is an analysis of the President’s remarks:

  1. The U.S. President told us the shooting in California was “An act of terrorism, designed to kill innocent people”.

Key Shift #1. For two days after the shooting the media and government was reluctant to label this attack as “terrorism”. That word carries with it gravity beyond terms like “mass shooting”. It specifies a coordinated, planned attack by a group, not an individual, with the goal of undermining the way of life in the United States.

This acknowledgement grants clemency to make future policy decisions congruent with a new goal: preventing terrorism in the United States. It also signifies a different political environment. When a U.S. President acknowledges an “Act of terror” inside the U.S. the thematic and actual rule set for every U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agency changes. We saw that change before our eyes last night, albeit in the subtle words of a President practiced in measured language. But as of today, it is no longer business as usual.

  1. In the very next paragraph of his address President Obama said, “Our country has been at war with terrorists since Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11.”

Key Shift #2. That remark further recalibrates our policy decisions going forward: We are at wartime footing now. Previous remarks have used words like “conflict” or the word “war” in a more colloquial context. This was a very George W. Bush-like declaration. President Obama said, substantively, that the United States is at war. That acknowledges the nature of the attack and grants a change in tenor toward our response, and our future responses to similar incidents.

  1. “…We will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens. In both countries, we’re deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that offensive.” 

Key Shift #3. The President announced we have special operations forces deployed on the ground in Syria. Through the masterful use of a plural pronoun for Iraq and Syria referencing this first sentence, the President told us there are U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria. This may be the first executive acknowledgement of U.S. intelligence and military personnel deployed on the ground inside Syria. He also said, by masterful omission, they are there in a combat role by using the words, “…can accelerate that offensive.”


The President acknowledged there are U.S. Special Operations troops inside Syria.

In Washington-speak there is a difference between deploying small special operations direct-action and intelligence gathering personnel and using larger military assets from the U.S. Quick Reaction forces including Army Rangers, U.S. Marines, Army Airborne and light infantry units.

The conduct of a sophisticated and subtle special operations/intelligence war compared to the deployment of more conventional forces is the difference between treating a cancer with sophisticated chemotherapy that subtly targets key cells, or treating it with an amputation. The President told us we are doing the former.

  1. The President told us, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun.” 

Key Shift #4. This suggests a recalibration for the President’s argument for reviewing gun laws when he asked for changes in weapons buying for people on an existing no-fly list. It isn’t easy to get on a no-fly list, and this step resonates with common sense in a time of war. It is also a minor concession from his more sweeping rhetoric for gun law reform. Polarized conservatives will likely still reject this proposed change in firearms buying law, but it does suggest a concession, however minor, in the President’s relentless admonitions for new gun legislation.

  1. The President brought the inertia of unity to his argument, acknowledging that “…65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition.”

This is an “all against one” war against ISIL. This acknowledgement of the balance of power and the cooperation of the international community is significant.

  1. The President said, “…We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to warzones. And we’re working with members of both parties in Congress to do exactly that.” 

Key Shift #5. This administration has come under criticism for not being tough enough on immigration. This statement signals a shift in that mindset.


  1. The President’s most important thesis statement may have been, “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.” 

America has become a culture that mistakenly seeks one solution to one problem. Any experienced analyst will tell you that is not possible, especially in a complex conflict. This is an asymmetrical war, not a conventional war. There is no front line, the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms and the battlefields are not the vast oceans, high skies and sweeping deserts on some faraway continent.

The battlefields are our churches, schools, festivals, arenas, shopping centers, airliners and anywhere a vulnerable crowd gathers that can be exploited through violent terrorism and instant media.


  1. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.”

 This continued agenda of inclusion and mutual problem solving is the most effective doctrine in undermining ISIL’s “us against them” rhetoric. A key strategy to any insurgency is to divide the larger opponent into polarized factions that will fight against themselves. It is the manifestation of the ancient Arabic saying, “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend” and it is exactly the doctrine ISIL is employing in Syria. Unity in the United States makes us impervious to that doctrine.

  1. “…It is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.” 

More than just a call to reject discrimination, this is a call for all Americans to think more deeply and learn more about this conflict. Most Americans couldn’t find Syria on a map, or name its capital. They don’t understand the conflict. Rather than applying the template of old belief sets to new conflicts, Americans must seek first to understand this conflict before trying to apply old rules to fighting ISIL. This is a different war. There will be no carpet-bombing, no sweeping armored assaults across vast deserts and no squaring-off of infantry divisions. ISIL has no sophisticated air force (yet), no large navy and does not field massive armored divisions. They are a cancer, not a compound fracture.

  1. tom said:

    Great stuff. Good points.

    It’s troubling that he’s pushing his gun control agenda in with this initiative. It’s a lame attempt to convince people that none of this would happen… Seems that terrorists are best known for automatic weapons and bombs, neither of which are currently legal making a “no-fly list” requirement a bullshit play that won’t actually make any difference. Now it will only be more illegal…
    I find it ironic that the guns were acquired through sellers that didn’t perform the background checks they were supposed to do in the first place. I don’t think adding more requirements will guarantee matters improve when the system is already showing signs of being ineffective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: