Question: Who said this about the war on terror? “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
Answer: Not Barack Obama, but the president he replaced. Three years into the American-led war on Islamist terror, George W. Bush acknowledged the obvious: The United States can do serious damage to the forces of Muslim terrorism, but it cannot fully eradicate the phenomenon.
My impression, based on reporting at the time, is that by 2004 Bush was beginning to understand that the ultimate solution to a Muslim problem was a Muslim answer. Which is to say, that the U.S., or the West as a collective, could not make Muslim extremism disappear without the help of the non-extremist Muslim majority. And even with that help, total disappearance was not a credible possibility.
Obama discussed Islamic State at a press conference Wedmesday in Estonia: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” For statements like this, the president is derided as feckless and weak.
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To be sure, Obama also said earlier in his appearance, “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.” This statement contradicts the other one, but seeking constancy in the Obama administration’s declarations on Islamic State, and on the broader war in Syria and Iraq, is a difficult task. (The president’s earlier suggestion that Islamic State is the “JV team” of terror is especially painful to contemplate now.)
But to acknowledge that Obama’s rhetoric, and the all-over-the-map statements made lately by members of the U.S. national security apparatus, have not inspired awe, is not to say that the president’s actual handling of the crisis should, at this point, be declared a catastrophe. Yes, I lean toward the Hillary Clinton camp on this question: All things being equal, I wish that the Obama administration had intervened more forcefully — indirectly, to be sure, but more forcefully — in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
But those who argue that Obama is AWOL from the fight against terrorism, or who think it was disastrous that he admitted last week that he does not yet have a strategy to counter Islamic State, are missing (perhaps on purpose) a couple of very obvious points.
The first point concerns the actual war on terror that the administration has been waging. It is important to remember that Obama is perhaps the greatest killer of terrorists in American history. This formulation might upset his more liberal supporters, the sort who still haven’t figured out that Islamism poses a dire threat to modernity. And it will anger his more conservative opponents, who believe that he is, if not an actual Muslim, then a Muslim Brotherhood fellow traveler. But I believe that this is a supportable statement.
Obama has launched strikes against Islamist terror targets in several countries. He has devastated the leadership of core al-Qaida, and just this week — as Washington opinion-makers collectively decided that he was hopelessly weak on terror — the president launched a (quite possibly successful) strike in Somalia against the leader of al-Shabab, a terror group nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State.
And here’s the important bit — at the same time the White House is the target of relentless complaints that it has not done enough to combat Islamic State, Obama is actually combating Islamic State, launching what appear to be, at this early stage, fairly effective strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The rhetoric is not inspiring, but the actions should count for something. “Obama is the only outside player taking real and serious action, however limited, against ISIS in Iraq,” said Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine.
The second large point has to do with Obama’s statement concerning U.S. strategy. Yes, it is disconcerting to hear a president say that he possesses no strategy against a not entirely new threat, but it would have been more disconcerting to have heard him lie about the existence of a strategy.
The reason I am sympathetic to his predicament has to do with an 11-year-old memo I keep taped to the wall of my office. It is from Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense, to Douglas Feith, then undersecretary of defense for policy. It is dated April 7, 2003 — shortly before Rumsfeld’s mission in Iraq was so awesomely accomplished. The brief memo’s subject line reads, “Issues w/Various Countries.” It opens, “We need more coercive diplomacy with respect to Syria and Libya, and we need it fast. If they mess up Iraq, it will delay bringing our troops home.” Rumsfeld continues, “We also need to solve the Pakistan problem. And Korea doesn’t seem to be going well. Are you coming up with proposals for me to send around?”
I think it is sufficient to say that policy should not be made by memos written in a Holly Golightly, “Hey, what’s up with Korea, anyway?” style while a war is already underway.
I’d rather see a sober, serious and, yes, deliberative, approach to the Islamic State challenge, than to one day read memos like this from inside the Obama administration. Islamic State poses a threat of currently indeterminate seriousness to the U.S. It poses a more urgent threat to moderate Arab states, and also to Europe. The U.S. must build a coalition to combat and neutralize the Islamic State threat — and I believe that Obama knows that this is what must be done — but there is still time to plan, and to think through the consequences of our actions.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs.
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