… Obama’s reluctance to discuss more openly the problem of jihadist violence is indicative of a major shortcoming of his presidency: the lack of urgency he feels in waging wars. He does not want to be a wartime president, and, thus, he has never put enough resources, willpower, or momentum behind efforts to defeat groups such as the Taliban or ISIS. In the case of ISIS, U.S. aircraft continue to drop bombs at a desultory pace in Iraq and Syria, while U.S.-backed proxy forces continue to make slow but steady progress against ISIS on the ground. But the longer Islamic State manages to hang around—and it has been in existence for nearly two years now as a self-proclaimed caliphate—the more of an attraction it exerts for potential jihadists such as Mateen.
There is much talk and some action on counter-radicalization efforts, primarily online, where ISIS has shown its mastery of Internet propaganda. And this is certainly a worthwhile initiative for various agencies of the U.S. government to pursue. But, in the final analysis, it is impossible to stop jihadists from spreading their propaganda online; the Internet is simply too vast and varied to effectively police. The only way to effectively curb ISIS’s appeal is to destroy the Islamic State. Even suicidal terrorists don’t want to die in a losing cause, and it is notable that ISIS’s recruiting has declined along with its military fortunes.
The way to finally defeat ISIS is not simply by dropping more bombs or sending more troops, although we need to do both of those things. The other imperative, as I have written many times before, is to woo Sunnis in Syria and Iraq away from ISIS by offering them a political end-state they can support—one that does not involve domination by Iran or its proxies. This has been the most blatant missing element of America’s anti-ISIS strategy under Obama.
Of course, no one should be fooled into thinking that even if the Islamic State is destroyed, attacks such as the one in Orlando will simply cease to occur. An organization can be defeated by military force, but an ideology is harder to eradicate. ISIS could disappear tomorrow, and there would still be plenty of Islamist firebrands eager to recruit followers for terrorist attacks in the West.
A revolution in thinking in the Muslim world is the West’s most profound wish, but it is hard to bring about. The U.S. should do whatever possible, and more than it is currently doing, to support moderates in the Muslim world. At the same time, we must maintain our vigilance at home, continue gathering intelligence, and continue attacking, either directly or through proxies, wherever terrorist groups gain sanctuary to recruit, train, operate, and propagandize. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of places in today’s world that fit that description—ranging from the frontier regions of Pakistan to Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on.
It is a big task to clean up all these cesspools, and it will not be done by invading country after country. This will be a long war, and it will be fought by a variety of means, some kinetic, many not. In many ways, this conflict resembles the Cold War, a multigenerational struggle waged with varied instruments. We can only hope that this conflict will end as satisfactorily from our vantage point as the Cold War did.