It is clear that our efforts to defeat the Islamic State have been inadequate. Half-measures will not work against a growing threat from radical Islamists that are uniting fractured terrorist groups around the world under one banner.
Over the past six months, as the Obama administration has continued to develop its strategy for defeating the group, our enemies have not been standing still. The Islamic State now reaches from North Africa through the Middle East, Pakistan and South Asia and into Southeast Asia. Libya, with its absence of government control and its vast stocks of weapons, has become a particularly deadly terrorist haven that is allowing the Islamic State to broaden its map, gain strength and plot attacks against Europe and the United States.
Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debated an authorization to use military force against the Islamic State. But instead of giving the president what he needs to win this struggle, many in the Senate seem more focused on telling him what he should not do. They argue that we need to place conditions on the types of force that can be used or impose a timeline by which victory must be achieved.
Yet the threat is growing by the day. Beyond the Americans who have already been brutally slaughtered at its members’ hands, the Islamic State is actively developing its ability to target civilians in “lone wolf” attacks in Europe and the United States. Its continued spread across the Middle East is alarming. It is imperative that the United States and our European and Arab partners join together to stop this threat before it advances farther.
While the current front lines are in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is exploiting vast, ungoverned spaces in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa to conduct training, add to its ranks and unite sympathetic, disparate terrorist groups under its flag. Once the Islamic State establishes control of a city or territory, such as in Darnah, Libya, it declares it part of its caliphate and then establishes an Islamic court, police force and governing administration. It frequently holds public forums at which the local populace is expected to pledge support for the group and volunteer to travel to Syria to fight. Local groups who align with the Islamic State soon adopt its savagery and begin beheadings and other barbaric acts to prove their allegiance.
Despite all of the coalition conferences and rhetoric from U.S. officials, significant gaps remain in the administration’s strategy. For instance, any successful effort against the Islamic State must include a plan for removing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from power. We can no longer afford to allow the Syrian regime to benefit from U.S. strikes against the Islamic State. So far our actions in Syria have undermined our credibility with the very people we will need to empower in a post-Assad Syria.
The United States and coalition partners should move quickly to implement a safe zone along the border with Turkey and begin to enforce a no-fly zone for Assad’s air force in parts of the country. We must also increase our efforts to tackle the unrest in Libya before a vacuum becomes entrenched there, as has happened in Syria, and the range of our options narrows.
To this end, the United States must expand counterterrorism operations in areas where the Islamic State is growing or establishing a foothold. Additionally, the U.S. military should increase capacity-building and training efforts for willing governments that need our support. Not adequately supporting the nascent Libyan government following the 2011 removal of Moammar Gadhafi was a key failure of the Obama administration.
The next defense secretary will need to press the U.S. military to design and implement a winning strategy against the Islamic State while leaning hard on our partners in Europe and the Middle East to commit more forces to this fight. The United States must move quickly to exert more pressure on Assad or risk fracturing the coalition as our partners grow weary of the slow, tepid U.S. response.
These are the issues we should be debating, not when the war will end or what types of force can be used to win it. It’s time for members of Congress to ensure that the president has the flexibility and authority he needs to keep America safe, not to further tie his hands. The ultimate success of this battle and the safety and security of Americans are at stake.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.
The Washington Post