The disconnect just keeps getting bigger and bigger between the President Obama’s view of the U.S. interests endangered by in ISIS extremists’ startling military advances in Iraq, and his proposed response.
Thus at a press conference yesterday in Australia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – whose record on Iraq-related matters is anything but hawkish – told reporters that “the barbaric ideology that these extremists embrace is…a threat to our way of life.” Later that day, back in San Diego, he called ISIS “a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before like we have seen it now.” And yet he also reminded his military audience that “As the president has made very clear, we’re not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in, in Iraq. Very specifically, this is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation.”
Nonetheless, the President urgently needs to do a much better job explaining the ISIS threat. In particular, he has to specify that the jihadists’ creation of the caliphate they keep talking about would confront the United States with a new, and possibly more violent, version of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda base if provided. It’s not like 9-11 happened so long ago, or that most Americans who lived through it have forgotten.
Instead, the administration’s portrayal of ISIS sounds a lot like its confusing portrayal of Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in that county’s civil war – a development supposedly dangerous mainly because it violated international law, and would weaken current curbs on acquiring and using these and other weapons of mass destruction.
It’s true that Mr. Obama added in his climactic White House speech last September 10, “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians. “ But critics rightly noted that those terrible cats were essentially out of the bag already, and that punishing Syria was unlikely to deter other rogue states – much less non-state terrorists.
The President’s failure to convince Congress or the public that America needed to strike Assad was surely undermined by the gauzy, muddled conception of national interests he tried to sell. Luckily this failure proved to be tolerable – not fundamentally because of the agreement eventually reached that seems to have stripped Syria of at least most of its chemical arsenal, but because, as Mr. Obama had admitted scant days before, “Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed [no] imminent, direct threat to the United States.”
An ISIS state might not threaten American security imminently. But history teaches that a direct threat is likely to emerge. If and when it does, the President’s undisciplined thinking about national interests will have exacted a fearsome – but entirely avoidable – price.