President Obama, this is a significant speech.

Four Points Obama Should Avoid Tonight

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Dear Mr. President,

Your address to the nation tonight about Islamic State may be the most important of your presidency. This has nothing to do with your approval ratings. Such numbers are ephemeral, especially as historians look back to study the U.S. under your stewardship. What gives this evening's speech its significance is that for the first time, you will be speaking to a public actively worried about an external threat. That raises the stakes considerably -- less for you, Mr. President, than for a nation that has twice elected you by comfortable margins, to lead but also to protect.

Because of the rapid gains and bloodthirsty tactics of Islamic State, more of your fellow citizens than usual will probably be tuning in and listening closely. Most of us will be looking for reassurance that our government has a clear plan for getting things under control.

Exactly one year ago tonight, you addressed the nation on the need for military action in Syria. The rallying didn't work. This time around, you begin with strong majorities supporting strikes against Islamic State. If you think that action is crucial to the nation's security, it's important not to squander that good will.

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest four things you ought to avoid in tonight's speech:

-- Don't minimize the threat. Don't assure us that Islamic State cannot possibly strike the U.S. homeland. Even if you believe that, nobody else will. Make clear that you understand Islamic State's ambitions to attack the U.S. and that your administration takes the possibility seriously. Remind us that the protection of the American people is a president's highest duty, and assure us that nothing is more important to you as commander in chief.

-- Don't treat the strategy as something to be developed as time goes on in consultation with ... well, anybody. Make clear to us that you're ready now. And don't hesitate to refer to Islamic State as the enemy. Your reluctance to use the word "war" is understandable, but it's also by now become far too noticeable, and those abroad who would do us harm have taken just as much notice as the carping journalists and commentators at home.

So, do tell us that Islamic State is the enemy. Tell us that your intention is to defeat it. Don't settle for military jargon that, used in politics, tends to obscure ("degrade," for instance). You've recently used the word "destroy" -- stick to that one. Admit that the crisis won't go away any time soon.

-- Don't tell us what you aren't willing to do to win. Yes, you recently suggested that that insertion of U.S. ground forces would be "a profound mistake." You shouldn't repeat the point tonight. Precisely because the entire world understands your wariness about committing ground forces, you will be making a forceful statement simply by not ruling out the possibility.

The important point is to keep your adversary guessing. Don't allow domestic political concerns to cause you to provide the enemy with advance knowledge of the limits on what you are prepared to risk. Force Islamic State to worry about and prepare for a myriad of possibilities.

In fact, precisely because the entire world understands your wariness about committing ground forces, by not ruling out the possibility, you will be making a forceful statement. (And if your speech leaves open, even by omission, the possibility of boots on the ground, Mr. President, it's crucial that your staff not leak anything to the contrary. Presumably you believe the security of the nation to be at stake -- otherwise there's no point to tonight's address. Anyone who leaks comforting assurances that you meant less than you said should be fired. Immediately. That, too, makes a forceful statement.)

Don't give us a timetable. Don't use code words like "limited in their scope and duration." I know you had to say that in correspondence with Congress in order to satisfy some interpretations of current law, but most of your fellow citizens aren't lawyers, and you should be blunt. Make clear that your administration is willing to do whatever is necessary to prevail.

-- Don't in any way suggest that the decision is anyone else's. You said recently that the U.S. has to act against Islamic State "as part of the international community." Of course one wants to build an international coalition, but don't speak as though coalitions build themselves, or as though this is some work to be accomplished in the future. Make clear that you, as president of the U.S., are determined to do right now what you think is necessary.

Similarly, although of course one wants Congress on board, what we need to hear is that you've spoken to the leadership and they're on board already. Tell us that they've promised to provide whatever resources are necessary to defeat the foe. Make clear, however, that you as commander in chief are leading the way on this campaign -- both domestically and internationally. Don't suggest in any way that the ultimate responsibility for decision lies with anyone but yourself.

* * *

Mr. President, I am well aware that an address omitting these points will subject you to furious condemnation in some quarters. But the omissions are also what will cause both the American people and those around the world to understand the seriousness with which you take the threat. Of course there are many, both here and abroad, who do not believe that Islamic State poses a serious threat to the U.S. I'm assuming you think they're wrong. If you think they're right, then there's no need to give the speech at all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net