President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address is remembered today mainly for this bit of rhetorical irony: “America must move off a permanent war footing.”
It was the triumph of speechwriting over experience. Obama’s pledge came about three weeks after the fall of Fallujah to the Islamic State. By June, Mosul would be overrun. Global jihadism now has a cause — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate — around which to rally. It controls unprecedented territory and resources. It has a stream of thousands of Western recruits cycling in and out of the Middle East. And it encompasses a dangerous competition between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, in which acts of terrorism are a source of street credibility.
Obama’s reaction, as always, has been restrained. The world does much to disappoint him, but it apparently has nothing to teach him. Every signal he has recently sent — in his lack of an appropriate symbolic reaction to the Paris attacks, in his limp, equivocal performance beside a more determined British Prime Minister David Cameron — seems to be saying: I am not going to repeat George W. Bush’s overreaction to terrorism, which only feeds extremism.
So, Obama is careful to explain that terrorism is not “an existential threat.” “Intelligence and military force alone,” he says, “is not going to solve this problem.” And he urges Europeans to “not simply respond with a hammer.”
We have come a long way when an American president pompously urges the French to curb their cowboy instincts.
But the situation in Europe reveals this line of argument — that overreaction provokes terrorism — to be farcical. The French did not support the Iraq war. They did not engage in enhanced interrogation. They have been consistent supporters of the Palestinian cause. They have tried not to offend. But it didn’t matter. Some offense by Charles Martel in the 8th century would have been sufficient pretext. Western countries are not engaged in policy disagreements with violent Islamism. They are facing, in Cameron’s words, a “fanatical death cult.”
Obama is correct to distinguish that cult from the faith of Islam. Equating the two is not only substantively wrong, it is strategically insane. No president would criticize the religious beliefs of millions of his fellow citizens — particularly when their good faith is necessary to isolate violent radicalism. And any fight against terrorism depends on good relations with Muslim allies who take many of the front-line risks. Islam is not the same as Islamism. And not even all Islamism is violent Islamism. Such distinctions are essential to successfully conduct a war on terrorism.
And Obama is correct that this war requires a variety of non-military strategies: diplomacy that somehow corrals Sunni and Shiite powers into anti-terror alliances; economic development that provides opportunities for alienated youth; effective ideological campaigns (which are now badly underfunded) to counter violent extremism. We do need “all the elements of our national power.”
But even with these caveats, the task that remains is a global armed conflict of uncertain duration. It will involve maintaining a technological edge to monitor the communications of potential terrorists. It will involve arming, training and guiding (sometimes with American boots on the ground) proxies to fight battles. It will involve targeted killings with drones, bombers and special operations forces.
Particularly with the rise of the Islamic State during the past year — which occurred in a vacuum of local sovereignty and global attention — the United States has an enormously complex and difficult task ahead. It involves building up allies that have previously proved hollow and fragile; patiently reclaiming territory; preventing infiltration by jihadist veterans and attacks by homegrown sympathizers; helping re-establish some semblance of legitimate government in Iraq (challenging) and in Syria (pretty near impossible).
It is not sufficient to describe this — or dismiss this — as “counterterrorism.” Even the effort that Obama currently describes requires the end of a terrorist regime holding large portions of two countries in the Middle East. Americans need to be prepared for years of conflict — and for the strong possibility of terrorist escalations such as we saw in Paris. Or worse. And American allies need to be led and encouraged in this effort, not ignored or lectured.
President Obama has variously tried to declare victory against terrorism (“al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated”) or to claim that the United States has turned a corner past war. But his wishes do not make it so. Displaying his own core of leadership — if only to justify his stated strategy of regime elimination — has never been more needed.