It’s Time to Tell the Truth About the Long War Against Terrorism

Why saying the United States can destroy the Islamic State is worse than providing false hope.

ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 14:  (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the counter-ISIL campaign in the Pentagon briefing room December 14, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama met previously with a National Security Council on the counter-ISIL campaign. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 14: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the counter-ISIL campaign in the Pentagon briefing room December 14, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama met previously with a National Security Council on the counter-ISIL campaign. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

On Dec. 6, four days after the San Bernardino attacks, in an Oval Office address (only the third such address of his almost concluded eight-year presidency), President Barack Obama reassured Americans that we would prevail against the threat of terrorism. “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said. “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.” 

The president confidently went to great lengths to tell the nation that we will draw on all aspects of American power. But Obama did not tell us the whole truth. A lie is lie only if you tell somebody something you don’t really believe yourself. And without personally straining the bounds of credulity to the breaking point, I don’t believe Obama believes that his current strategy will “destroy” the Islamic State or any other organization that tries to harm us. The fact that he omitted his customary word “ultimately” from his remarks likely reflected the urgency of the moment rather than any real conviction that the war Obama described in his address would be won easily or quickly.

The president isn’t alone in his desire to offer up definitive solutions to the war against terrorism. A number of presidential candidates, primarily on the Republican side, have likewise made super confident and even more grandiose pronouncements about winning the war against jihadi terrorism and destroying the Islamic State. Donald Trump: “I would bomb the shit out of them.” Marco Rubio: “If America does not make this [war against terrorism] our fight, the West will not win it.” Lindsey Graham: “[The United States] should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria.” And Ted Cruz: “We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.” Even Hillary Clinton, whose rhetoric is very much toned down, has spoken of a plan not to contain the Islamic State but to “defeat and destroy ISIS.”

The only problem with this kind of tough talk is that the goal of winning definitively the war against jihadi terrorism, including destroying and defeating the Islamic State, is about as likely as winning the war against drugs, poverty, mental illness, and banning guns in America. The president, as a self-described Niebuhrian and a pragmatist who understands that more often than not the best you can do is to come up with “proximate solutions for insoluble problems,” ought to know better. Sure, the nation needs to be reassured — jihadi terrorism isn’t an existential threat to America. But in that moment, the nation could have used — and could still use — some critically important reality therapy in what is certainly going to be a very long war against Islamist terrorism. And here’s why.

The United States isn’t Europe. But does that matter?

Terrorism experts argue that four factors make Europe much more vulnerable to jihadi attacks than the United States: 1) Paris was easily accessible; 2) there are many European nationals quite eager to kill their own countrymen; 3) there’s a euro-jihadi infrastructure; and lastly, 4) European security services just can’t handle the caseload tracking and preempting attacks by the number of homegrown, returning, or infiltrating jihadis. This rather comforting analysis makes sense up to a point.

It’s true that for the United States’ liquid assets (two oceans on either side), our better border controls, and a better integrated and less aggrieved Muslim American community, all give us an advantage. But over time, how much of one? In fact, homegrown jihadis don’t need a big support team or infrastructure for DIY terrorism; there are plenty of guns on hand, and by the looks of things, the San Bernardino shooters were impossible for law enforcement to track. Add a dose of easy access to jihadi propaganda on the web, nativist anti-Muslim backlash, and Trump’s “keep out the Muslims” campaign and you’ll easily double the size of a radicalized pool, a percentage of which will act violently. You don’t need Islamic State-directed operations or Raqqa-dispatched hit teams when inspiration will do nicely.

The terrorism epicenter 

With all due respect to the solutionists, the war on jihadi terrorism — and that’s what it is — is a generational enterprise. Fourteen years after 9/11, more than twice the time it took for the allies to win World War II, the jihadis are thriving.

My FP colleague the inestimable Micah Zenko noted that terrorist-related deaths grew by more than 4,000 percent from 2002 to 2009 and by 148 percent from 2010 to 2014. And while he pointed out that last year not a single American was killed within the United States in a terrorist attack, the stats for 2015 are already much more tragic. The fact is, the Islamic State, al Qaeda affiliates, and a host of other maniacal groups slouching toward Bethlehem waiting to be born will not be extinguished anytime soon. Bad or no governance, leaving empty spaces in a Middle East that is angry, broken, and dysfunctional — as well as riven with sectarian tensions and pushed by powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in their own deadly proxy war — guarantees the health and well-being of the jihadi enterprise. This region will be spewing hatred, irrationality, illogic, and a vicious Islamist medieval ideology for years to come. America won’t be the only target to be sure. In the past month, the Islamic State has either directed or inspired terrorist attacks on permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. But the United States, both for what it represents and does in the world, will be high on the jihadi hit list.

You can’t defeat something big with nothing big.

Despite Obama’s pledge to destroy the Islamic State, it’s highly arguable whether the United States or any other power has the will, means, or skill to do that. Paris was less a game-changer than it was another cruel turn in the long war against jihadi terrorism. Obama even boasts of a coalition of 65 nations that have pledged to defeat the Islamic State. But how many of these really count? This presumed coalition of the willing, including of course the Brits and the French, also includes a lot of other countries whose contributions are at best marginal and too many others that are better described as the unwilling and self-interested. Just look around. Russia’s priority is keeping Bashar al-Assad afloat, Turkey is hammering the Kurds, and the Saudis are busy hitting the Houthis in Yemen. On top of this, no possible combination of local forces can stabilize Syria, and neither NATO nor the Western powers are willing to commit enough ground forces to destroy Islamic State sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria to guarantee the jihadis won’t return. More disconcerting, the Islamic State has jumped borders now and is operating with impunity in Sinai, Libya, Yemen, and in parts of Africa. The jihadi cancer has gone global, and the great powers can’t seem to stop it. And if we’re waiting for the House of Islam to reform itself and purge its own radicals and extremists, we’ll be waiting for a very long time to come.

The wild, wild West

As terrorism analysts Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin point out, in counterterrorism and law enforcement we’ve come a long way since 9/11: “Post-9/11 visa requirements and no-fly lists weed out most bad actors, and both the Bush and Obama administrations demanded that countries in our visa waiver program provide data on extremists through information-sharing pacts called HSPD-6 agreements.” And we’re making improvements in other areas too, such as the agreement with the European Union over passenger name records in 2012.

Keeping bad guys (and girls) out is one thing. What about tracking U.S. citizens already here, particularly those who seem to live normal lives as the San Bernardino shooters seemed to have done? The FBI has 900 inquiries related to the Islamic State now open in all 50 states out of some 10,000 counterterrorism cases. And how can you intensively watch and track them all? Add the ease with which weapons and explosives can be accessed; toss in the size of the country and the ease and anonymity with which people move about; and add a pinch of the freedoms that protect us all and you have a powerful brew just waiting to boil over. Indeed, some would argue that in comparison to ordinary mass killings, jihadi terrorism is rare. As of Dec. 2, in 209 of the 336 days this year, there was at least one shooting a day that killed or injured more than four people.

None of this depressing reality therapy appeared in the president’s address to the nation. Understandably, Obama wasn’t interested in scaring Americans but unifying and reassuring them. Maybe like 9/11, what happened in San Bernardino was an anomaly, and we will be spared another jihadi attack for another 14 years.

I very much doubt it. DIY terrorism thrives where there is an abundance of soft targets: freedom, anonymity, access to guns, and aberrant human behavior motivated by ideology and religious extremism, in this case radical Islam. Indeed, in today’s world, no other kinds of religious extremists are directing and inspiring their followers to kill innocents on a global scale other than Islamist ones.

We can certainly weaken the Islamic State. We can make it harder for jihadis to operate in Syria and maybe even destroy the Islamic State’s base of operations there, if we figured out a way to fill the empty spaces with reliable local partners and better governance. But we won’t win the war against the jihadis anymore than we can win the war against crime, drugs, or mental illness. Get real, President Obama and whoever will be the next president. We’ll be fighting jihadis for years to come. Level with us and don’t infantilize us: We deserve honesty and clarity on this issue. Sure, the goal is to win the war against jihadis. But this isn’t World War II, neither in the magnitude of the threat nor in the commitment you’re prepared to make. Forget the grandiosity and grand coalitions. In the meantime, just help us survive this war over the long run, hopefully with our values and our security more or less intact.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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