There was a time not so long ago when the White House said al Qaeda was on its heels, the tide of war was receding, and the U.S. was turning its attention to Asia. It was a happier time in terms of foreign policy. America would lead from behind and not do stupid sh#t, even if that meant staying on the sidelines as Syria and, later, Iraq imploded.
Then along came the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The rise of these fanatics in Iraq and Syria means many things. If they are not stopped, the borders that define the modern Middle East will be erased. The remaining Christian, Turkmen, Yazidis, and other ethnic minorities living in the region will be cleansed.
But Obama has been strangely reluctant to go all in against ISIS.
ISIS is part of the war on terrorism. One need only scan the group’s social media accounts or watch an extraordinary documentary from Vice Media where a young 14-year-old says he hopes one day to raise the black flag of Jihad over the White House to understand that these fighters threaten America and the West.
But those American jets bombing ISIS positions outside of Mosul, at the base of Sinjar and on the outskirts of Irbil, mean Obama is fighting the same kind of long, ideological war he has spent most of his presidency trying to end.
True, ISIS and al Qaeda aren’t on good terms these days—the success of ISIS poses a direct challenge to al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it has even battled al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria. But they share a common core of ideology that drives the entire jihadist threat against the West.
Despite this, Obama has labored to limit the war on terror to the organization that attacked us on 9/11, which officially began on September 14, 2001 when Congress passed a resolution declaring war on al Qaeda and others who planned the horrific attacks of 9/11.
In 2009 in one of his first major speeches on behalf of the new Obama administration, John Brennan, who was then one of Obama’s top advisers on counter-terrorism and is today the director of the CIA, said the administration was no longer calling it a “war on terrorism” or describing al Qaeda as “Jihadists.”
Obama relied on the September 14 resolution, like Bush, to authorize drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. But Obama has also sought to phase this war authorization out, challenging Congress to narrow or revoke it.
“Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand.”
And this month, as he reluctantly ordered airstrikes in Iraq for the first time since he withdrew the last U.S. troops from the country at the end of 2011, Obama deliberately laid out modest goals for the new campaign.
All this follows Obama’s winning political hand. He authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. After the fall of bin Laden, the pace of drone strikes in Pakistan briefly increased and several top lieutenants met the same fate as bin Laden.
And while the White House allowed that there were still terrorists and al Qaeda franchises in the Muslim world, their ability to strike inside the United States had diminished with the decimation of its Pakistan-based leadership, Obama and his top advisers said.
But then Benghazi happened, making it seem there was a closed-eye approach to the problem of jihadists. When a mob attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA station in Benghazi, Libya on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the Obama administration at first was loath to even call it terrorism, referring to “acts of terror” in the general sense from a mob of unruly locals enraged by an Internet video.
When the Tsarnaev Brothers bombed the Boston Marathon last year, they were called “lone wolf” attackers, even though the brothers downloaded al Qaeda propaganda.
Most recently, the Islamic State has vowed to attack the West.
True, not all of these threats can be explained by the machinations of a global organization known as al Qaeda. They are, however, connected. Bin Laden, the Tsarnaevs, the fighters in ISIS, and the mob that attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi didn’t act in a vacuum. They are steeped in the literature and ideology of jihad and hatred of the West—and they are driven to act. Whether that translates into a coherent and consistent view of global jihad in each case is almost beside the point. (Indeed, that incoherence has led Muslims to suffer the most crazed violence at the hands of jihadists.)
Obama’s first secretary of state and main Democratic rival for the presidency in 2008, Hillary Clinton, recognized that the United States needed to develop a broad strategy for countering not only discreet terrorist groups, but this broader ideology going forward. In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg this month she said, “Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.”
Obama has not gone that far. But there are signs that he is changing his mind. On August 14, the day Obama announced that the United States had accomplished one of its initial objectives in his new Iraq campaign by breaking the siege of Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis were trapped by ISIS forces, the White House General Counsel met with lawmakers of both parties to discuss a new war authorization for Iraq.
As Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, put it on Fox News Sunday: “We are finding out the authorizations in place are pretty tenuous. He is going to need authority to deal with this new asymmetric threat.” Rep. Eliot Engel, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on the same program said, “I think we ought to fight ISIS wherever they rear their ugly heads.” He then noted that right now America has some bad choices. “The worst choice,” he said though “is to do nothing.”
Obama has chosen to do something about ISIS, an organization that did not attack us on 9/11 but shares nonetheless the fanatical ideology of the group that did.