The President’s speech last night convinced me that we shouldn’t bother much about the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL). They don’t seem to warrant a new, comprehensive strategy and a prime-time speech.
In a lawyerly moment, the President declared that IS was not Islamic because no religion condones the killing of innocents. Really, that is what determines its religion bona fides? Do the Crusades come to mind? How about the Shia-Sunni wars of the last 1,500 years? Dresden and Hiroshima must mean that neither the U.K. nor the United States are, or at least were at the time, Christian countries. Similarly, he has determined that IS cannot be a state because it is not recognized by any government or the people it has subjugated. Never mind that it increasingly walks, talks and lays eggs like a duck. If we don’t recognize it as a state, it must not be one. According to the President, IS has no ideology, no strategy, no plan; it is just one of a number of radical groups exploiting grievances in the region for their own gain. “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” Now I understand: IS is a Middle Eastern version of the Manson family. So, we really don’t have to worry about them becoming a movement with an ideology, a strategic purpose, war waging capabilities or a global following.
In the same speech in which the President sought to make the case for a comprehensive strategy to deal with IS, he trivialized the enemy and minimized the threat to the United States and its interests. By extension, if IS is not Islamic then they cannot have much influence in either religious or political terms among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. So there is no need to worry about it becoming a movement with affiliates in other countries. If it is not a state and has no vision then it cannot be on a path to expanding its territorial reach in order to create one, the Caliphate. The President even stated that there were no indications of specific plots against the homeland although there have been threats. He did say that IS posed a threat to the people of the region and to American citizens and interests there. But given his characterization of the group, it is difficult to understand the basis for his statement that “if left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States.”
The military aspects of the President’s much-anticipated strategy are based on this viewpoint. It is a counterterrorism and not a counterinsurgency strategy. What does this mean? Essentially, it means containment not destruction. As he stated clearly: “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” We first fought Al Qaeda supported groups in Somalia in 1993 and we are still at it today. There is no end in sight to the conflicts in either of those countries. We kill terrorist leaders one at a time in a seemingly endless game of whack-a-mole. In fact, the President promised more of the same, declaring that “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” I guess that means we can now add Iraq and Syria to the list of places in which we will be involved militarily for decades to come.
Surprisingly, the weakest part of the President’s strategy is not the military component but the political one. Given his description of IS there is no need to add a war of ideas to the strategy because the terrorists have none. There is a new Iraqi government, one that is “inclusive.” This settles the governance problem in that country. Nothing more needs to be done there other than the standard arm, train and assist activities that the U.S. military does so well. We are going to strengthen the freshly vetted moderate Syrian opposition and pursue a political solution to that country’s civil war. Problem solved. There was no mention in the speech of Iran, its assistance to the Assad regime or the presence of its paramilitary forces in Iraq. We can ignore Iran. We are going to work with partners to cut off the flow of money and foreign fighters to IS. The President will go to the Security Council. I guess that means the states in the region and the world community are standing fully with us. Enough said.
However, not to worry. As the President stated at the end of his speech, “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.” So, if as the President said, Americans are safer today, IS is just a small group of terrorists that is neither Islamic nor a state, just like the others we have been fighting for nearly two decades and our future looks extremely bright, why bother?
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