The president’s false choice

President Obama speaks last month on legislation that authorized the use of military force against the Islamic State.
President Obama speaks last month on legislation that authorized the use of military force against the Islamic State. TNS

The revelation that “Jihadi John” – the murderous ISIS henchman responsible for the savage killings of at least three American and two British hostages – once lived among good and civilized people in the United Kingdom is a stark reminder of how terrorism can hit close to home. Sadly, Mohammed Emwazi is not the first young person to be lured from a comfortable western lifestyle into the dark, bloodthirsty world of terrorism. And I fear that as long as the Obama administration’s ambivalence towards terrorism – particularly as he negotiates with Iran – persists, Emwazi most certainly will not be the last to join its swelling ranks.

By ambivalence I mean the administration’s tolerance of certain strains of terrorism. We face more than the Sunni terrorism of Al Qaeda and ISIS. According to the U.S. State Department, the number one state sponsor of terrorism is the Shia fundamentalist-run Iran, the very same fanatics we are treating as equals at the negotiating table in Geneva. And while we are talking and the clock on a nuclear accord runs out, they remain focused on causing mayhem in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. They continue to back Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups that have American blood on their hands.

We cannot be selective when it comes to terrorism. Terrorism grows and thrives in the absence of moral and physical authority. It must be confronted and stopped everywhere. America needs a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to terrorism, no matter its source.

But what would such a policy look like? For one, it means confronting its perpetrators via all necessary and available means. We must drain the swamp ideologically as well as militarily. It will require alliances and, at times, lonely rectitude. No one is eager to see the U.S. mired in another Middle Eastern war. I am as aware of the potential costs and consequences as anyone. And I am not necessarily advocating for boots on the ground today. I only know that it is absolutely essential for American interests and for human lives across the globe that we do more than nothing.

We are paying a high price for our weak-willing and inconsistent approach to terrorism. By failing to confront ISIS directly and by cooperating with Iran – the regional progenitor of Islamic extremism – the US has in fact unwittingly contributed to the escalation of violence. We have legitimized Iranian Shia extremism and thus empowered their counterparts in ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups, giving them a healthy source of recruitment and motivation.

Yet in its single-minded quest for a nuclear weapons deal, the Obama administration appears to be blind to every aspect of Iran’s behavior and impact on global stability, including its role in fomenting sectarian conflict that gave rise to ISIS. We are merely promoting one brand of extremism over another.

Both Shiite and Sunni variants of fundamentalism adhere to a single ideology. The only difference is that in Iran, fundamentalists control state power, accessing a wealth of resources that are the envy of other terrorist groups. Without Tehran's theocratic model and direct or indirect help, these groups would remain scattered and transient at best.

But we must also remember that the Middle East is not populated solely by extremist groups. It is a large, dynamic, and diverse region in which terrorists are the clear minority. Iraq, Syria, Iran, and many countries in the region are homes to large populations of moderate Muslims, such as the Free Syrian Army and the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

These moderate, secular movements are under-appreciated and underinvested in by U.S. policymakers, despite the fact that they are fighting on a daily basis for democratic rule and a tolerant vision of their faith. Indeed, in the case of the MEK, more than 120,000 of its adherents have been executed by the ruling clerics and 3,000 more await their fates in Camp Liberty in Iraq. They have been all but ignored by this administration, despite written U.S. assurances of protection.

The United States should be actively identifying and supporting moderate groups as part of a consistent, zero-tolerance policy to fight extremism. The alternative to extremism transcends military intervention and must have a pronounced cultural component represented by more moderate Muslims. We must stop making the false choice among equally monstrous options that can only further destabilize the region and lead to more deaths across the region, among our Western allies, and here at home. The answer to extremism is more subtle and accessible than we have ever contemplated.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, a North Carolina resident, was the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.