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 Wednesday 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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But those who argue that Obama is AWOL from the fight against terrorism, or who think it was disastrous that he admitted he does not yet have a strategy to counter Islamic State, are missing very obvious points.
Obama is perhaps the greatest killer of terrorists in American history. Obama has launched strikes against Islamist terror targets in several countries. He has devastated the leadership of core al-Qaida, and just this week the president launched a successful strike in Somalia against the leader of al-Shabab, a terror group nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State.
And Obama is actually combating Islamic State, launching what appear to be, at this stage, fairly effective strikes against IS targets in Iraq. “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.
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 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 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?”
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. 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.