The gains made in recent months by the group calling itself the Islamic State have bolstered its long-term ambitions to attack the West, including the U.S., and the group has become such a potent force that traditional counterterrorism tactics aren’t sufficient to eliminate it, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday. Officials painted a bleak assessment of the threat posed by a group that was largely counted out just four years ago, when it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq. Since then, it has staged an extraordinary comeback, particularly in the past year. The forces that fueled its resurgence are also the factors that will make it so difficult to defeat, intelligence officials said. The group has been able to capitalize on the upheaval in the Middle East because it is a highly organized and well-trained organization, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. The group has patiently executed a strategy to establish a caliphate. In the short term, that means controlling territory in Iraq. In the longer term, the group would like to use that base to launch attacks against the West, the officials say.
This is a devastating indictment of the foreign policy of President Obama, much worse than the 9/11 Commission report assessing the lackadaisical attitude toward al-Qaeda pre-9/11. Having gone through 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and amassed a huge amount of intelligence there isn’t any credible way to claim surprise. Either the president wasn’t paying attention, bizarrely believed doing nothing was the right result or has some parallel universe in mind in which this doesn’t matter. Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Gen. David Petraeus and Robert Gates can duke it out about who knew what and who warned whom and whether it is morally defensible to keep working for a president who is ignoring a direct threat to the United States, but going forward it gets boiled down to three essential questions for this and the next administration:
Do you believe, as all these intelligence officials and members from both parties agree, that the Islamic State is a direct and serious threat to the United States? There sure is a lot of evidence that it is, and the ability to nearly destroy Iraq and its attempt to annihilate Christians in Iraq are surely indications of the Islamic State’s intent and capability. But if there is someone who still contends that the Islamic State is the “jayvee” team, he or she should speak up. The country can decide if this is sage analysis or jaw-dropping stupidity.
If you think the Islamic State is a direct and serious threat to the United States, did Obama’s policy of essentially doing nothing and pulling troops out make the situation better or worse? Former national security adviser James Jones argues:
Mr. Maliki’s failure to unify Iraq’s diverse populations is the chief cause of the current crisis, but Washington bears some blame for not taking timely action that could have limited this summer’s chaos. The Obama administration could have maintained a limited military training presence in Iraq after 2011; could have acted in Syria last year when the chemical weapons “red line” was crossed; and could have insisted that Mr. Maliki arm the Kurds.
That is what Hillary Clinton surely believes — hence her attack (before she decided it wasn’t a good idea to attack a policy she didn’t warn us about until a book tour and presidential campaign). Conservative hawks have been making this case for 5 1/2 years. I’m open to hearing an alternative argument, but there hasn’t been a cogent explanation for why allowing the Islamic State menace to grow, doing nothing while jihadis poured into Syria and removing troops from the region made things better. Simply saying “We would have made it worse” isn’t an argument; it’s an unsupported ideological assertion. The president may well keep doing nothing and some 2016 candidates may be willing to run on “Eight more years of inaction!” but I don’t think the public will find that wise.
If you think the Islamic State is a direct and serious threat to the United States and doing nothing made it worse, what are you prepared to do about it? Here Clinton has been vague. Is she in favor of sending ground troops? Would she keep troops in Afghanistan? Would she increase aid and assistance to non-jihadi rebels in Syria? If you want to be president, you have to tell us. Jones recommends:
Robust support to and expansion of humanitarian missions, and arming the Kurds directly with sufficient weaponry to ensure that they can defend their region.
Immediate and greatly expanded aid and assistance to the new Iraqi government.
A special envoy to ensure direct and immediate communications with Baghdad and with Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite leaders (including tribal sheikhs).
Intelligence that enables the effective targeting of ISIS command and control.
Convincing regional leaders that ISIS must be denounced and denied a permanent presence in Iraq.
Others who have been urging a more robust response point out that we cannot have a policy for just one side of the Syria-Iraq border.
I would suggest the answer is essentially: We do whatever we need to do, including putting back in the 10,0o0 troops the military recommended to Obama in 2011 and rebuilding our military in order to defeat the Islamic State and prevent jihadis from attacking the United States. The idea that we can remain safe from jihadists with a Fortress America and law-and-order perspective (i.e. chasing down individuals, reading Miranda rights and putting them on trial) should have ended on Sept. 11, 2001.
We’ll find out who has the insight and the nerve to say just that.