September 12, 2014
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President Obama gave a pretty good speech Wednesday night. Pressured by the American people’s overwhelming support for defeating ISIS, President Obama gave a speech his predecessor, President George W. Bush could have applauded.
Many of President Obama’s words were reassuring. He was dedicated to defeating ISIS. He would pursue anyone who threatened America. He was committed to a long, difficult campaign.
Unfortunately for the President and the country, there were five major strategic flaws in his speech. These flaws are so profound that the Congress should hold hearings exploring each of them.
President Obama’s speech was a good start to a long and difficult process of figuring out how to defeat radical Islamism and learning the lessons of 13 years of failure to do so. It cannot have been the final word on what America has to do to win the war with radical Islamism.
The five strategic failures in the speech are:
2. Failing to define a positive goal
3. Failing to explain how we are going to compel so-called allies to do what is necessary to defeat radical Islamism
4. Failing to explain how hard and long and frustrating this war will be
5. Failing to ask for the resources this kind of war will require
If left uncorrected these five failures doom the President’s plan to failure.
Let me explain each failure and why it must be fixed.
1. Radical Islamism is not an Iraqi or Syrian problem. Radical Islamism has supporters, advocates, recruiters and sources of resources all across the planet.
As we learned on September 11, 2001, it only takes a few people to do incredible damage. There are more than 10,000 terrorists from over 50 countries who have joined ISIS. Here in the United States, there are recruiters and supporters of ISIS.
Well over 100 Americans have joined ISIS. Two Minnesotans have been killed in Syria. One of them had clearance to work on the runway of the Minneapolis Airport for a decade. We are lucky he decided to take his terrorist activities to Syria instead of to his day job.
Radical Islamism includes Boko Haram in Nigeria, elements in Libya, Hamas in Gaza and dozens of groups around the world. President Obama failed to have any global strategy for a viral movement which requires analyzing the problem as an epidemic rather than as a problem between nation-states.
Without a global strategy we will simply continue the 13-year pattern of failure and the radical Islamist movement will continue to grow.
2. The worst moment of President Obama’s speech was his suggestion that Somalia and Yemen were models of success that his anti-ISIS campaign could follow.
Both Somalia and Yemen are disasters. Both are host to rampant terrorist activity. Somalia has virtually no government. Yemen has a very weak government which may not survive. If this is the Obama vision of success, it is a horrifying accumulation of human poverty, misery and violence which Americans should repudiate.
The President is trapped because he is being forced into a fight he doesn’t particularly want and he is determined to do as little as possible. That is a formula for imposing violence and destruction on a lot of innocent people who can’t defend and protect themselves. America has to develop a positive strategy of growing reliable, self-governing allies. That requires confronting the reality that both anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns are inadequate models. We do not have the doctrine, the training or the tools today for that project.
3. One of the great failures in the 13 years since 9/11 has been our failure to develop a system for compelling our allies to cooperate in defeating radical Islamism.
Qatar is currently the most visible example of a tiny country run like a medieval fiefdom using its oil and gas wealth to openly subsidize fanatics who want to destroy us. The Saudis are notorious for funding madrassas (Islamic schools) which produce terrorists.
We have to be prepared to exert far more pressure on countries who are undermining the war against radical Islamism. Qatar is a sufficiently small country that its ruling dynasty should be informed that in the absence of policy changes, there will be a regime change. We do not have to helplessly wring our diplomatic hands while they fund those who would cut off our heads. Our Navy alone could persuade the Qataris in a day or two that an anti- Radical policy would be healthier.
4. Sadly, this war with radical Islamism may go on for a long time. Politicians are already asking for an “exit strategy”. When you face enemies who want to cut off your heads and destroy your civilization, the only exit strategy is victory.
We spent 46 years containing the Soviet Union until it collapsed. We may have to spend half of a century or more hunting down radicals, growing reliable self-governing allies, and convincing friends and neutrals to be anti-radical.
Any politician’s promise of a quick victory or a glib exit strategy is a fantasy and should be treated with contempt. We can grow prosperity, sustain freedom and live good lives while waging a relentless, unending campaign against radical Islamism but we will have to sustain that campaign for a long time.
5. All this will require new resources, new programs, and potentially new institutions. We went through that process of programmatic and institutional invention in the early stages of the Cold War. We have to do so again. The failure to address the resource issue was the biggest sign President Obama and his team had not really thought through the war they were announcing.
Congress has a Constitutional obligation to hold hearings on these five failures. We need to think before we act. We need a tough-minded, honest assessment of why, 13 years after 9/11, we are still far from a serious strategy to defeat radical Islamism. More floundering, more bombing and more drones are not a substitute for a sound, thoroughly debated strategy.