You have to give the bloodthirsty jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) credit: They may be savages, but they know us well. They used well-produced, high-quality videos of their grisly murders of American journalists to provoke the United States into a bipartisan frenzy of retribution.
It worked too well. Not only have Democrats and Republicans alike insisted that Obama do something, anything, to stop ISIS, but surveys indicate that support for military action against the jihadists has soared among average voters since the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 47 percent of Americans believe the country is less safe than it was before the attacks that came 13 years ago, a post-9/11 high.
But if there is evidence that ISIS has the ability to attack us on American soil, President Obama failed to share that in his televised address to the nation last week. In fact, several foreign policy experts have voiced doubts that ISIS has that capacity.
Still, the president will go forward with a strategy that includes sending “advisors” back into Iraq — a troubled nation Obama once believed we should be done with — to “train” Iraqi forces to rout ISIS there. He also pledged airstrikes against their forces, in Iraq and Syria, too. This may not be a recipe for disaster, but several key ingredients for mission creep are mixed right in.
It seems that ISIS has adopted Osama bin Laden’s PR tactics, since he also understood how easily the U.S. could be inflamed. As bin Laden famously said in 2004: “(It is) easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”
Yes, yes, the jihadists of the Islamic State are dangerous. They represent a threat that might — might — eventually acquire the means to attack the homeland. But Obama could pursue them as he has pursued terrorists from Pakistan to Somalia to Yemen — with drone strikes aimed at key leaders.
By the way, let’s not forget that Obama’s drone war has become increasingly unpopular among civil libertarians, including, until quite recently, a Republican senator from Kentucky named Rand Paul. But now that Paul is ramping up for an apparent presidential bid, he has become more hawkish, reading the polls of GOP voters who want the U.S. to show its military might. It will be interesting to see whether Paul — indeed, Congress in general — has the political courage to authorize the president to take the military action that so many have insisted upon.
But U.S. airstrikes cannot kill off ISIS, which draws its strength from the chaos and sectarian oppression in Iraq and Syria. A committed group of Sunni fighters who view martyrdom as the path to eternal glory, ISIS has picked up reluctant support from Iraqi Sunnis who have been treated poorly by the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia.
While Maliki resigned under pressure from Obama, he has been replaced by Haider al-Abadi, a man with a similar political background who might not do much more than Maliki to incorporate Sunnis and Kurds into the government. If he doesn’t, he will face the same sectarian divisions from which ISIS draws strength.
Then there’s the matter of sending advisors into Iraq to train its military. Didn’t the U.S. just spend years and hundreds of millions of dollars doing just that? Yet, when Iraqi soldiers have faced the vastly outnumbered ISIS, they’ve shed their uniforms and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind high-powered weapons, paid for with U.S. dollars, for ISIS to use. The terrorist group has also seized weapons from the same Syrian moderates that we will continue to arm.
Obama pledged that the U.S. will not be drawn into another ground war in the Middle East, but it’s now unlikely he will go down in history as the president who ended two wars. It’s a stain on his legacy — a genuine failure of leadership.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb
Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!