Politics & Policy

What Obama Needs to Say on ISIS

(Pool Image/Getty Images)
Four principles the president should include in his strategy.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria poses a clear and present danger to the United States and has secured a base for its attacks that is larger, wealthier, and more secure than anything in al-Qaeda’s wildest dreams. The Islamic State’s barbaric executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are the group’s way of proving – both to its Islamic brethren and to the West — that it is serious about its threats to kill Americans.

We are already the target of the most lethal and powerful terrorist group ever to have existed. We must act now to defeat it before it is ready to strike us.

The rise of this threat should surprise no one. It has been growing since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 and the partial collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that same year. The only surprising thing is that President Obama has remained passive for so long in the face of massive atrocities, humanitarian catastrophe, the destruction of two Iraqi Army divisions, the conquest by an al-Qaeda splinter of a vast region in Iraq and Syria, and the deployment of Iranian military forces and Lebanese Hezbollah into those two countries. If military action should always be the last resort, we are there. Four years of passivity, diplomatic engagement, public cajoling, and speechifying have permitted the emergence of a dire threat to the United States.

In an op-ed published one year ago, I and a colleague warned that the potential for radical Islamic terror to thrive in the Levant was great and would likely lead to further regional destabilization and conflict in the absence of a forceful American response. We felt it necessary to support American efforts both to crush the Syrian puppet government supported by Iran, which had recently used chemical weapons against its own people, and, equally, to crush radical Islamists who have subsequently gained such worrisome victories.

We did not have much company in our support for the mooted “unbelievably narrow” air strikes. Many of our colleagues distrusted the president’s determination and even ability to carry out a decisive action. Those sentiments were understandable, and the president’s decision to forgo military action entirely and thereby allow the situation to continue to deteriorate seemed to validate those concerns.

But the situation has gotten worse. The danger to the United States is far greater than it was a year ago. Thousands of westerners, many with European and even American passports, have joined the jihad and are returning to their home countries even more radicalized, and with experience and expertise in war and terrorism. The Islamic State has apparently gained control of several dozen kilograms of radioactive material from research institutions in Mosul, Iraq. It cannot be made into a nuclear bomb, but it could be used in a “dirty bomb” to contaminate a wide area with radioactivity. We must not allow last year’s mistakes to cloud our judgment today. The battlefield has now attracted other stripes of radical Islam all striving to defeat the Islamic State and fill the vacuum, mostly in the form of Iranian-supported military forces including the Hamas, Palestinian Jihad, Syrian military, the Quds force, Hezbollah, and the greater Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In other words, this area has become a veritable melting pot for America’s enemies, who have all worked to attack American interests for years.

That is why I call upon the president to take military action against these threats, and I call upon my colleagues to support the effort. That action should be based on four principles:

First, we must recognize that we cannot allow the Islamic State to continue to present an existential threat to America. It is grossly inadequate simply to say, as the president has, that such groups “don’t belong in the 21st century” and are “on the wrong side of history.” We must instead place this threat — with its massive persecution of Christians and murderous expansionist march against the West — on par with those who have challenged the world order before, whether in the name of Communism, Fascism or, now, Islamism. We must commit to wipe out this threat to America using hard and soft diplomacy, American airpower, and, yes, even American ground forces in Iraq and Syria. We must strike “limited” from the American arsenal.

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The president and many others fear repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. It is time for Americans to recognize that it was precisely the attempt to pursue the most “limited” possible, calibrated, gradually escalated approach to conflict that led us into Vietnam. We cannot and should not reinvade Iraq or seek to bring “overwhelming force” to bear on a complex and delicate conflict. But we should take actions that offer a realistic chance of changing a very bad situation dramatically, not incrementally.

“Limited” is no recipe for defeating enemy forces. We should take actions that offer a realistic chance of changing a very bad situation dramatically, not incrementally. And defeat of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda team — not containment or disruption — is the only worthy goal and is absolutely achievable. The president must lead and act by offering a sound, bold, strategic plan to accomplish that goal. I am confident members of Congress will support such a plan.

Second, this national commitment must be a sustained one. It is likely to be a years-long effort, not weeks or months. The president and others who oppose action are wrong to suggest that we cannot win this fight because Americans are “war-weary.” America was war-weary when Robert E. Lee marched into Pennsylvania in 1863 and when Washington marshalled his battered and beleaguered troops at Valley Forge. Yet in each case a leader, bound by his duty to defend the nation, marshalled the case for the expense of treasure and blood and presented it clearly to the American citizenry. Our nation always rallies behind a worthy, moral cause. It will do so again.

Third, we must recognize what the Jordanians, the Israelis, and even the Egyptians and Saudis know: that the fight is not just in the Levant, but extends to North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula. If we pretend that the U.S. can remain a sleeping giant, Americans will be immeasurably more vulnerable to military and economic attack. We must never cooperate with President Assad, whose actions caused the collapse of his state and the rise of al-Qaeda there in the first place. We must consistently put pressure on Iran, whose sectarian militias constantly pour fuel on the flames of conflict throughout the region. We must work to reestablish both Iraq and Syria as free-standing states that will be able to defend themselves and prevent their lands from becoming safe havens for terrorists again once we have helped defeat them.

Fourth, we must engage with the enemy enough to identify local partners that will fight to help us destroy ISIS. As a former cavalry officer, I can tell you that it is difficult to develop a sound plan even at the operational level if we have no operational forces on the ground. We must move with sufficient force to fix the enemy in place, a classic reconnaissance and intelligence mission, and we must be prepared to exploit weaknesses identified quickly and decisively.

Rather than continue to downplay and obscure the threat, every American leader must work to protect us from the threat of our generation. Avoiding doing “stupid stuff” is a dodge, not a strategy. The defeat of al-Qaeda and of its offshoots is an imperative. It is also achievable, with the right leadership and the right goals.

– Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former Army cavalry officer, is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

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