The Administration’s strategy for defeating fanatical Islamic terrorism (meaning just the Islamic State) ignores hard truths.
In his remarks from the Oval Office on Sunday evening, President Obama discussed radicalization, the threat of homegrown terrorism, and reiterated the Administration’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). On the issues of radicalization and homegrown terrorism, the President called on Muslim communities around the globe to reject and combat the fanaticism that is growing in their midst. He also called on Americans to reject discrimination and stereotypes. These were his most eloquent, sensible, and effective remarks.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Stripped of the lofty rhetoric, the President’s strategy for defeating IS can be succinctly described as: Take limited steps to disrupt and constrain IS operations (e.g., airstrikes, drone attacks, and soon special operations raids) while we wait for two developments to occur in parallel – (1) a foreign ground force to be sufficiently trained, equipped, and motivated to fight IS and hold territory; and (2) a diplomatic resolution to Syria’s civil war that allows IS to be defeated without Assad also remaining in power. Moreover, although the President included a few throw-away lines about the global spread of terrorism, his entire counter-terrorism strategy was focused solely on defeating IS in Iraq and Syria.
This strategy is both deceptively simple and dangerously superficial. In arriving at this strategy, the Administration has ignored at least five hard truths.
First, sometimes we must choose the lesser of two evils.
We have many competing interests in Syria and Iraq. It is unquestionably complicated. But we have made it more complicated than it needs to be by taking the position that Assad must be removed from power. With Russia now directly involved in the conflict, there is little chance this will happen. At this point, the question facing the U.S. is whether our national security interests would be better served by the intractable status quo or by a rapidly negotiated deal – something akin to the Dayton Agreement – that effectively partitions Syria and permits a weakened Assad to remain in power in a rump Syria. Although such a deal would be imperfect and distasteful, and could prove to be elusive even with our concession, it would allow the West and Russia to cooperate in defeating IS.
Second, time is not on our side.
The Administration appears to be executing its strategy with “All Deliberate Speed.” Unfortunately, with each day that passes, IS converts its ability to hold territory into propaganda and successful recruiting and uses its safe havens to inspire and plot attacks. Today, it is recruiting more fighters than we are killing with airstrikes, and many of these fighters are now returning home to carry out attacks. Not only does this math not work in our favor, but this strategy places enormous pressure on our defenses – border, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies – to detect and thwart attacks. As the recent attacks in the Sinai, Paris, and San Bernardino demonstrate, we face another math problem: Our defenses must be successful all the time; terrorists need only be successful some of the time.
Third, there is middle ground on the ground.
The President apparently believes that we have effectively only two choices for confronting IS: Use airstrikes (and soon Special Forces) to weaken and disrupt IS while we wait for a foreign ground force to retake the caliphate or send in U.S. troops to do this dirty work. Even if the President is correct in rejecting this second option, he has created a false dilemma. There are many options for confronting IS that lie between his current approach and an all-out ground assault by U.S. troops. Indeed, his belated decision to begin sending in Special Forces is an acknowledgment that we could be doing more on the ground (and in the air) to degrade IS, reduce its access to supplies and money, and constrict its territory. In addition, although cooperation with the Kurds creates diplomatic challenges with Turkey, we could prioritize greater support for the only effective ground force currently fighting IS. In short, given the advantages that IS derives from its claim to have created a caliphate, the President should be aggressively pursuing every military and intelligence option at our disposal, short of deploying a ground-based invasion force, to put IS on the defensive and its leadership on the run. The President believes he occupies the high ground in the debate over boots on the ground. The country needs him to move to the middle.
Fourth, we cannot forget about the “leftovers.”
When we defeat IS on the battlefield, our work will be far from over. We will not kill every IS fighter in Iraq and Syria. Many will return home before the fighting on the ground begins (as is already happening). Others will flee to safe havens, such as Libya, once the fighting is underway. Some will be captured.
What is our plan for these leftovers? Do we have the defenses in place to prevent attacks by these hardened, embittered, and desperate terrorists? How will we locate, prosecute, and incarcerate those who have returned home? Do we have the legal ability to incarcerate them for decades, until the fire of fanaticism has completely burned out? Do we believe any returning fighters could be rehabilitated? What will we do with those captured on the battlefield? Are we prepared to track down and kill or capture those IS operatives that have fled to safe havens? IS cannot be defeated simply by dislodging it from Syria and Iraq.
Fifth, we must do more than defeat IS to defeat fanatical Islamic terror.
Fanatical Islamic terror is a hydra. We cannot simply cut off one head at a time and prevail, as the rise of IS and other Sunni terrorist groups after the purportedly strategic defeat of al Qaeda aptly demonstrates. It would be a pyric victory to “defeat” IS only to watch its surviving fighters raise a new flag, or to see another group pick up the terrorist baton. This means that our strategy for defeating fanatical Islamic terror must target every group that poses a threat to the U.S. wherever we may find them, not only in Syria and Iraq, but also countries such as Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia. The Administration may have discarded the “global war on terror” nomenclature, but fanatical Islamic terror is global and at war with the U.S. We need a comprehensive strategy to defeat this cancer, rather than shrink and then remove just one tumor.
The President spoke from the Oval Office to reassure a jittery nation that the Administration had a sound plan for keeping the country safe and defeating terrorism. Unfortunately, his overly simplistic and superficial remarks gave the opposite impression. It is increasingly clear that the Administration is unable or unwilling to grapple with hard truths. The world is an increasingly dangerous place. Fanatical Islamic terror has already metastasized and we must confront it globally. We may have to compromise, throw sharp elbows, and get our hands dirtier to ensure our security. We need to act with urgency. In a flat world, what is “over there” will soon be here. We need a counter-terrorism strategy that reflects these realities rather than one that dodges these hard truths.