The thing to do when you’re in a hole and wish to get out of it is to stop digging. Though there’s very little evidence that President Obama listens to anyone, that’s wise advice that someone on his staff should keep giving him. Yet despite the evidence of a failed military strategy against ISIS that has allowed the group to both conduct terror operations in Europe such as last week’s atrocity in Paris as well as to retain control of much of Iraq and Syria, the president has refused to reconsider his approach to the problem. This past week he doubled down on his refusal to escalate America’s half-hearted and ineffectual military response in the Middle East while lashing out angrily at the press for asking obvious questions about his seemingly inexplicable faith in a policy that hasn’t worked. Today, he dug a little deeper when asked about the reports that the United States Central Command has been feeding the White House with exaggerated claims about U.S. success in the war on ISIS.
Rather than own up to the growing fiasco, the president continued not only to claim that ISIS wasn’t prevailing in the conflict, but he went even farther in trying to minimize what they’ve done. As the New York Times reports:
“The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid,” he said, “to not elevate it, to not somehow buy into their fantasy that they are doing something important.”
He called the group merely “a bunch of killers, with good social media.”
That statement is so detached from reality as to call into question more than the president’s judgment. Does he really think that what these Islamists have done is “not important?” It was pretty important to the hundreds killed and wounded in Paris last week. It’s also fairly important to the people of Iraq and Syria who have found themselves under the rule of a terrorist caliphate that enslaves, tortures and murders countless numbers of people.
What possible motivation could the president have for saying something so patently foolish?
Part of the answer lies in the context of the remarks which came during the course of questions he was asked about the false intelligence reports that claimed vast damage had been done to ISIS (The president insists on calling it ISIL. Our Max Boot gave a good explanation for why the group ought to be either ISIS or the Islamic State earlier today).
It is obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of how things work in Washington that what the military has been doing is something that happens at all levels in the capital: lower levels tell higher levels what they want to hear. The president wants to think that his pinprick attacks and refusal to commit major forces and resources to the battle are working, so that’s what underlings tell him. But when confronted with the evidence that reporters from the New York Times uncovered, Obama says that all he wants is the truth. We’d all like to think so, but it’s hard to accept that explanation when it is placed in the context of the president’s adamant refusal to take the need for action seriously.
The only way for him to justify the way he has slow-walked the response to ISIS is to keep telling us it’s not that big a deal. Though the rest of us understand that the presumptions that were the foundation of his policy choices have vanished, the president still wants to think of himself as the man who ended all the wars in the Middle East. The enemy never got the memo in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and that is why we are being drawn back into Iraq, and even Obama has been compelled not to completely abandon the Afghan government. Yet he is still reluctant to own up to the failure of his strategy against the movement that filled the vacuum that Obama created when he pulled out of Iraq and refused to take action in Syria before that chaotic civil war got out of control. And he is now still content to be waging a phony war on ISIS.
That’s why the president is reduced to telling the American people that we shouldn’t be afraid or think too much of our enemies.
We should never give way to the counsel of our fears in war. The enemy is not ten-feet tall nor is he invincible. But neither are they unimportant. One can dismiss, as the president did today, the organizers of the Paris massacre as people who got their hands on a lot of weapons and were prepared to die. But that doesn’t mean that a group that can use religion to inspire large numbers of adherents willing to act in this manner isn’t a potent threat to Western security. When you gather sufficient numbers of such people, you get an army that can control a territory that is larger than some European countries. And when you allow that army to continue to hold its own because the greatest military power in the world is either afraid or reluctant to act, you create a situation that allows this caliphate to become the focus of a growing global Islamist movement. That brings them not only the sympathy of a disturbingly large number of Muslims but also inspires a lot of recruits both for the war in Syria and for terrorism elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this is a president that entered the White House convinced that the magic of his personality and his willingness to reach out to the Muslim world would solve all of America’s problems in the Middle East. That approach failed, but the president still refuses to see Islamism as a genuine threat. Nor is he willing to even acknowledge the source of the enemy’s faith-inspired fervor and strength.
The president believes that focusing too much on ISIS makes them stronger. But he has it backward. By letting them win, he has made them the “strong horse” that all too many in the Middle East and elsewhere believe is winning.
Though it is utterly despicable, what ISIS has done is very important indeed. It is time the president faces up to that fact. So long as he treats this threat as a minor annoyance rather than a genuine challenge to the security of the United States, it will continue to grow. A phony war won’t fix the problem. What the country needs is a president with the courage to admit his mistakes and to start treating this horror as something that is very important indeed.