More dangerous than al-Qaida.
If that is really true about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – and Pentagon leaders say it is – then President Barack Obama and his national security team must put together a far more comprehensive strategy to defeat it. And Obama should clearly explain to the public the threat ISIS poses and what needs to be done.
So far, actions have yet to match the increasingly ominous words coming out of the administration. Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS “and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed.” Wednesday, Obama came off the golf course to condemn the beheading of American journalist James Foley and to vow that the U.S. would eliminate the “cancer” of ISIS from the Middle East.
And Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the rhetoric even higher, telling reporters that ISIS is “beyond just a terrorist group” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen” because of its ideology, substantial funding and sophisticated tactics.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chimed in, warning that ISIS espouses “an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated.” The group, he went on, poses an immediate threat to the West because hundreds of Europeans and a smaller number of Americans have fought with the group in Iraq and Syria and could return to their homelands and launch attacks.
While the president has ruled out the return of ground troops to Iraq, it sounds like the Obama team is preparing the public for more intensive military action than the targeted airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and limited aid to Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Already, the U.S. mission has moved past shielding the Yazidis or protecting American diplomats and military advisers. Now, Dempsey says that ISIS cannot be stopped unless it is attacked in Syria as well as Iraq.
Americans are right to be highly skeptical of deeper military involvement in the Middle East quagmire. A poll out this week found a slim majority backing the airstrikes against ISIS, but little support for going beyond that.
Indeed, it’s sobering to think of America fighting a second concerted “war on terror,” after the enormous expenditure of blood and treasure after 9/11. Yet if ISIS has the will and the resources to kill large numbers of Americans, it must be confronted.
As commander in chief, it’s Obama’s job to convince the public. The president, however, has confused Americans by dramatically changing his tune on ISIS. Early this year, he said this of ISIS and terrorist groups like it: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think it is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
The inappropriateness of using sports analogies for national security matters aside, the president would have to admit that ISIS has definitely moved up to the varsity with its bloody advance through a wide swath of Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s two-week annual vacation on Martha’s Vineyard can’t end soon enough. When he returns to the White House next week, what to do about ISIS should be at the top of his agenda.