As the United States pivots back to the Middle East — in belated recognition that its enemies never pivoted from their intention to establish a territorial expression of radical Islamism — President Obama is more likely to change his policy than to change his rhetoric. We are more likely, in other words, to see “boots on the ground” in Iraq (already more than 1,000 troops are in supportive roles) than we are to hear an admission that the administration’s foreign policy approach has shifted.
Obama now wants to “degrade” the Islamic State’s capabilities, “shrink” its territory, and ultimately “defeat ’em.” (Even the locution has a nostalgic hint of Texas.) This will require a comprehensive “economic,” “political” and “military” campaign and a shift to “offense.” And yet, according to the president, this “is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years.”
No, it isn’t. The last five, six, seven years have seen a consistent attempt to narrow U.S. efforts to Special Operations raids and drone strikes while retreating from geostrategic commitments (as in Iraq) or ignoring them (as in Syria). “We must define our effort,” Obama said last year, “not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
So: Obama sought to take down terrorist networks. The terrorists sought to take down countries, and actually secured large portions of two. The contrast in ambitions was massive.
Now U.S. ambitions are being gradually, reluctantly and unavoidably expanded. The effort now required in Iraq and Syria is not a counterterrorism operation. It is a counterinsurgency campaign, conducted at a distance, after delays that have dramatically limited policy options. It will involve strengthening — politically and militarily — at least four diverse proxies: the Kurds, the Iraqi government, favorable Sunni tribes and the moderate Syrian opposition. It will include U.S. troops and intelligence personnel in supportive but active roles — locating targets, providing air and drone strikes, training and embedding with local units.
The closest model is not, as Obama would have it, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound or drone strikes in Yemen. And it is not (as Obama correctly insists) the Iraq war. It is more like the initial phase of the Afghan war, in which U.S. bombs fell from the sky and CIA paramilitary officers directed Northern Alliance battles on horseback.
This fight is itself embedded within a contest that our enemies, at least, regard as a global war, reaching across the U.S. Central Command (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), Africa Command (Libya, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria) and the Pacific Command (Indonesia, Philippines). And the former Australian Army chief Peter Leahy recently called this “the early stages of a war which is likely to last for the rest of the century. We must be ready to protect ourselves and, where necessary, act preemptively to neutralize the evident threat. Get ready for a long war.”
This is exactly how Centcom commanders and others described the strategic challenge following Sept. 11, 2001 — as “the long war.” The United States has found that this ideological, political and military struggle continues, whether we participate or not. And periods of our inattention are periods of our enemy’s growth and success.
The United States’ belated focus — long after the Islamic State began to exploit Syrian chaos — has increased the degree of difficulty for the execution of any U.S. policy. But for this much Obama deserves praise: He has begun preemptive action in Iraq to neutralize an evident terrorist threat. The memories of 9/11 have not entirely faded from the affairs of the nation.
They are still fresh for me. I remember heading toward D.C. in Virginia and seeing a plane flying low toward the Pentagon, so low I could see the windows. Driving to the White House before dawn on Sept. 12, my car windows open, smelling the Pentagon smoldering. The capital city empty, under cover of helicopters and jets. The mourning and the memorials.
That danger gathered unmolested in some remote Afghan valley. The direct successor to that threat now grows in a territory the size of New England, with funding and military capabilities beyond the dreams of al-Qaeda. I don’t really care what Obama calls the global campaign against this enemy, as long as he is truly determined to “defeat ’em.” Though it would be helpful to remind Americans: We fight ’em there, so we don’t face ’em here.
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