1)It’s Time to Tell the Truth About the Long War Against Terrorism
Why saying the United States can destroy the Islamic State is worse than providing false hope.
On Dec. 6, four days after the San Bernardino attacks, in an Oval Office address (only the third such address of his almost concluded eight-year presidency), President Barack Obama reassured Americans that we would prevail against the threat of terrorism. “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said. “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
The president confidently went to great lengths to tell the nation that we will draw on all aspects of American power. But Obama did not tell us the whole truth. A lie is lie only if you tell somebody something you don’t really believe yourself. And without personally straining the bounds of credulity to the breaking point, I don’t believe Obama believes that his current strategy will “destroy” the Islamic State or any other organization that tries to harm us. The fact that he omitted his customary word “ultimately” from his remarks likely reflected the urgency of the moment rather than any real conviction that the war Obama described in his address would be won easily or quickly.
The president isn’t alone in his desire to offer up definitive solutions to the war against terrorism. A number of presidential candidates, primarily on the Republican side, have likewise made super confident and even more grandiose pronouncements about winning the war against jihadi terrorism and destroying the Islamic State. Donald Trump: “I would bomb the shit out of them.” Marco Rubio: “If America does not make this [war against terrorism] our fight, the West will not win it.” Lindsey Graham: “[The United States] should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria.” And Ted Cruz: “We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.” Even Hillary Clinton, whose rhetoric is very much toned down, has spoken of a plan not to contain the Islamic State but to “defeat and destroy ISIS.”
The only problem with this kind of tough talk is that the goal of winning definitively the war against jihadi terrorism, including destroying and defeating the Islamic State, is about as likely as winning the war against drugs, poverty, mental illness, and banning guns in America. The president, as a self-described Niebuhrian and a pragmatist who understands that more often than not the best you can do is to come up with “proximate solutions for insoluble problems,” ought to know better. Sure, the nation needs to be reassured — jihadi terrorism isn’t an existential threat to America. But in that moment, the nation could have used — and could still use — some critically important reality therapy in what is certainly going to be a very long war against Islamist terrorism. And here’s why…
If Washington were really serious about defeating terrorism, it would have an entirely different playbook.
In the classic World War II novel The Caine Mutiny, author Herman Wouk quoted an “ancient adage” about the typical bureaucratic response to a crisis:
“When in danger or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream and shout.”
That couplet summarizes the prevailing U.S. response to global terrorism perfectly. All one has to do is read the panicky, narrow-minded, and irresponsible ravings of the current GOP presidential aspirants, as well as look at the latest poll numbers, and it’s clear that a good portion of the U.S. electorate is prepared to follow them off the deep end.
Yet the unhinged nature of the current discourse on terrorism also reveals how profoundly unserious U.S. counterterrorism efforts really are. To say this sounds odd, given the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been thrown at the problem, and the tens of thousands of lives (both American and foreign) that have been lost waging the “global war on terror” (or if you prefer, the “campaign against violent extremism”), is an understatement. It sounds even odder when one considers the vast army of people who are now employed to protect us from terrorism, not to mention the countries we’ve invaded, the drone strikes and targeted assassinations we’ve performed, and the mountains of metadata we’ve collected. Surely all this effort shows that Washington is deeply engaged in the challenge of thwarting al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other violent radicals.
If only. For starters, consider what we have to show for all this effort and expense. We now have a vast counterterrorism industry, much bigger intelligence budgets, and more energetic government surveillance, but the basic counterterrorist playbook has evolved little over the past 20 years. In particular, our national security establishment is still convinced that the main way to defeat extremist groups is U.S. military intervention, despite the nagging suspicion that it just creates more ungoverned spaces and makes it easier for groups like the Islamic State to recruit new members. The New York Times reported this week that the Pentagon is now seeking a new set of military bases in or around the Arab and Islamic world so that it can prosecute the military campaign against the Islamic State et al. more effectively.
Excuse me, but isn’t that exactly what we’ve been doing since the 1990s and with greater energy and effort over time?…