A somewhat ominous speech by President Barack Obama. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
A somewhat ominous speech by President Barack Obama. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

What's most striking about President Barack Obama’s remarks on Iraq this afternoon in the Rose Garden is what he didn’t say. He spoke at a moment when the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS) have driven government forces from several major cities, and are advancing toward Baghdad. Iraqi security forces, facing a major uprising without American backup, are in such disarray that Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has called upon his followers to arm themselves to protect Shiite holy sites.

Obama stressed the gravity of the situation, and warned that the growing strength of ISIS would do more than harm the Iraqi people: “Given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat, eventually, to American interests as well.” He said that his administration is considering a menu of options, but that he “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

That’s the first omission: By being careful to rule out “troops” in “combat” (rather than, for example, “military action”), he left open the possibility of air attacks to slow the rebel advance. And although it is a well-worn aphorism that air power has never taken or held an inch of ground, its judicious use might be able to give the Iraqi security forces a chance to rally.

Maybe.

The second omission is the more intriguing -- and, in a sense, the more ominous. Whatever the U.S. might do, the president said, will make no difference in the absence of “a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities.”

The elephant in the room, unmentioned by Obama, is what happens if Iraq’s leaders -- or the rebels -- turn out to be uninterested in compromise. In particular, the president never said anything approaching this: “We will under no circumstances permit the terrorists to take control of Iraq.”

Barack Obama is a man who knows how to use words. It’s possible, then, that this omission was intended to prepare us for the worst.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.