National Security & Defense

A 21st-Century Strategy for Defeating the Jihadists

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the front lines near Mosul, August 2014. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty)

No words can do justice to the memory of the 2,988 people who died on September 11, 2001, including eleven unborn children and the citizens of over 90 countries. On this day especially, we pray for the safety of our nation’s first responders, who carry on the legacy of service exemplified by those who gave their lives to save others. And we salute those sons and daughters of America who volunteered to don the uniform of our country, to ensure that something like 9/11 could never happen again.

In the years since 9/11, we have asked much of those who have served our country. I’d like to share with you one such story of sacrifice, the story of Marc Alan Lee.

Marc had dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. In 1997, he was scheduled to try out for Colorado’s major-league team, the Colorado Rapids. But Marc blew out his knee. So instead he decided to major in Bible and theology at The Master’s College in California. In 2001, Marc joined the Navy and earned a spot with the SEALs. On August 2, 2006, Marc was killed in Ramadi, Iraq.

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, the center of Sunni Iraq, had been home to many senior officials in Saddam Hussein’s government — especially senior military officials. By 2006, after the American-led coalition reclaimed Fallujah, Ramadi had become the center of the Sunni terrorist insurgency. Our generals knew that if we could clear Ramadi of insurgents, we would be on our way to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But clearing Ramadi would not be easy. It required fierce block-by-block street fighting. At one point, one of Marc Alan Lee’s brothers on SEAL Team 3, Ryan Job, was shot by a sniper. Marc single-handedly braved direct fire from the enemy in order to give his teammates the cover to evacuate Ryan from the battlefield. In the process of doing so, Marc was fatally shot.

Marc’s sacrifice in Ramadi helped deliver a crucial victory to the people of Iraq. Ordinary Sunnis came to believe that Americans would stick by them, and one by one they found the courage to fight the terrorists in their midst. This courage became known as the Anbar Awakening. The surge worked. Americans, Iraqis, and our allies stabilized the country.

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This was the Iraq that was handed to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton in 2009: not perfect by any means, but a place where the sacrifices of men like Marc Lee produced a hard-won stability, making it harder — but not impossible — for radical Islamic terrorists to threaten our shores.

Obama and Clinton never understood that. They believed al-Qaeda in Iraq had been permanently defeated. In 2011, before Iraq was ready to stand on its own, Obama and Clinton allowed negotiations with the Iraqi government to collapse, and pulled American troops out of the country. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” bragged the president. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” he told the troops at Fort Bragg.

Enough of making it up as we go along, of having no strategy to deal with our enemies other than giving in to them.

But Iraq hadn’t yet become self-reliant, and our enemies had not gone away. Two months after Marc and his brothers retook Ramadi, al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies announced that they were disbanding and reconstituting themselves as a new group: the Islamic State in Iraq.

When Obama and Clinton pulled out, they abandoned the courageous Sunnis in Anbar who had helped us defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The president dismissed ISIS as a “jayvee team [putting] on Lakers uniforms.” But a weakened ISIS took advantage of Obama’s ignorance and naïveté to recruit our former allies to their side. ISIS told them: “Obama has abandoned you. The Shiites in Baghdad have abandoned you. Either fight with us, or be killed.”

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Today, ISIS isn’t merely comprised of wild-eyed Islamic terrorists. Its military leadership comes from some of the most sophisticated and experienced commanders in Saddam Hussein’s old army. Last year, ISIS captured Fallujah. Four months ago, they retook Ramadi. Today, they control a swath of territory as large as Indiana.

No big deal, says the Obama administration. When a reporter asked the president what his plans were for defeating ISIS, he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” When a U.S. general was asked about the fall of Ramadi, he said Ramadi was “not symbolic in any way.”

I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for Debbie Lee, Marc Lee’s mother, to learn that her son had died in Ramadi. But President Obama did something even crueler to Debbie Lee: He allowed ISIS to wave its black flag over the ground that Marc died to save, by ignoring and even mocking the warnings that ISIS was gathering strength.

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I have one word for President Obama and Secretary Clinton. That word is “enough.”

Enough of hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that radical Islamic terrorists don’t exist.

Enough of giving $150 billion to the mullahs in Iran, and believing they’ll use it to plant flowers, instead of to kill Americans.

Enough of making it up as we go along, of having no strategy to deal with our enemies other than giving in to them.

Enough of cowering before our enemies and abandoning our staunchest ally, Israel.

Enough of putting politics ahead of the safety and security of the United States.

And enough of believing that the withdrawal of America will bring peace and stability to the world.


President Obama is fond of saying that the only two options we have are conceding to our enemies, and war. He is wrong. What we have most sorely needed in the fight against radical Islamic jihadists is a coherent and comprehensive strategy, a strategy that will advance the stability of the greater Middle East and the security of the United States.

That strategy has to start with a realistic assessment of where we are today, regardless of the dogmas of the past. Over the last 15 years, we’ve often spoken about a “Global War on Terror.” But the reality is that the war against radical Islamic terrorists is largely a regional one.

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That regional war spans a larger area than the Middle East, as we’ve conventionally defined it. It was not in the Middle East but in the hills of South Asia that Osama bin Laden planned his attacks against the United States. Thanks to the strength of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and the rise of Iran, the War on Terror now stretches from Libya in the west to India in the east, from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south. At the heart of this regional War on Terror are four neighboring countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, we have made real gains in the 14 years since 9/11. But President Obama is planning to repeat in Afghanistan his mistakes in Iraq, by engineering a premature, unconditional pullout that will allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to thrive again, while ISIS grows in strength.

#share#The president’s nuclear deal has given Iran an eventual path to nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and hundreds of billions of dollars — resources Iran will use to destabilize its neighbors, kill Americans, and threaten Israel’s existence. Iran’s eastern neighbors — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India — have wrestled with jihadist violence for decades, and will now have to prevent a more powerful Iran from exporting its mayhem their way.

ISIS has erased the century-old border between Iraq and Syria, drawing foreign fighters to the region and inspiring crowdsourced terror attacks abroad.

Bashar Assad, after four and a half years of civil war, continues to use chemical weapons against his own people, driving young men into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Both countries are in tatters. In Syria over half the population has been killed, displaced, or exiled since 2011, and our allies in Europe now face one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our lifetime.

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The problems, clearly, are serious. And the solutions must be serious as well. It will not take Gulf War III to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Iran. From us, it will take a credible commitment, and a credible vision.

The 20th century’s Cold War was very different from the 21st century’s War on Terror. But there is one thing we can learn from Presidents Truman through Reagan: the importance of a bipartisan, multi-national, multi-decade commitment to defeating a strategic and ideological enemy.

If I am elected president, America will help create a formal political and military coalition of 13 countries in the Middle East and South Asia to promote peace and stability in the region.

We can put boots on the ground — and, where necessary, we should. But our brave men and women can’t turn Syria into Sweden, or Iraq into Ireland. What they can do, along with our diplomats and aid workers, is help bring stability to war-torn countries. Stable governments and a stable international system will make it very hard for jihadists to maintain their foothold. Throughout our young century, from 9/11 to today, al-Qaeda and ISIS have flourished where sovereign states have failed.

If I am elected president, America will help create a formal political and military coalition of 13 countries in the Middle East and South Asia to promote peace and stability in the region: Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the U.A.E., Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. These countries don’t agree on everything, just as we don’t always agree with France or Germany. But each of these countries has good reason to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda, and protect itself against Iranian aggression.

In the first week of my presidency, I will bring the leaders of these nations to Camp David to assemble this coalition. Earlier this year, a number of Arab leaders refused President Obama’s invitation to visit Camp David. Under my leadership, I am confident they will come, because they will once again understand America’s long-term commitment to their security and ours.

After that initial meeting, this new organization of Middle Eastern and South Asian states should meet several times a year, along with Western allies, to discuss economic, military, and cultural cooperation. As these ties deepen, it would not be inconceivable for these nations to build a formal military and political alliance in much the same way that we did with Western Europe in the decade after World War II.

Under President Obama, our enemies believe they have learned a valuable lesson: that all they have to do is wait us out, and America will eventually abandon its friends. We can no longer allow that to happen. By creating an institutional framework that will outlive any particular president, we can stabilize and deepen our friendships in the Middle East and South Asia, regardless of which party is in power in Washington.

As we build a new framework for international cooperation, we must recommit ourselves to a few clear strategic goals that orient our actions and directly address the security challenges facing southwestern Asia.

Here is what our goals should be — what they must be.

First, we have to eliminate the strategic threat posed by ISIS and al-Qaeda to the United States and our allies — in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

Second, we must prevent Iran from destabilizing its neighbors through terrorism, and from developing a nuclear weapon designed to wipe out Israel, oppress the Arab world, and threaten the United States.

Third, we must help our coalition partners cultivate an Islamic world that is tolerant of minorities and at peace with its neighbors.

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To achieve these goals, we must recognize the central importance of helping the largest minority in the Middle East: the Kurds. No one has done more to beat back ISIS than the Kurdish peshmerga. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government has become a haven for persecuted minorities in Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are fighting ISIS with Soviet-era weaponry, while ISIS fights back in advanced American tanks. If the Iraqi government in Baghdad won’t help the Kurds defeat ISIS, then we should arm them directly and begin to treat them as the regional partner they aspire to be.

American power is most effective when our goals are realistic, when our endpoints are clearly defined, and when we are dedicated first and foremost to the preservation of international order.

While Kurds put their lives on the line to defeat ISIS, our nominal allies in Turkey have been aiding the very terrorist groups we are seeking to defeat, including ISIS and al-Qaeda. If Turkey wants to remain a constructive partner of the United States and our allies in the region, Turkey must end its tacit support for terrorists, bury the hatchet with its own Kurdish minority, and recognize that Turkey will be best off in a stable neighborhood, not a jihadist one.

ISIS gained strength in Iraq because we pulled out, and because Iraq’s Shiite-led government discriminated against its Sunni minority. Iraq’s new Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has shown promise in addressing the corruption of his predecessor. But we must also call on our Sunni partners in the region to help Iraqi Sunnis stand up on their own two feet, especially if Iraqi Shiites are unwilling or unable to follow Abadi’s lead.

Unfortunately, the Shiite-led regions of Iraq have fallen under the sway of the leading Shiite power in the world: Iran. Thanks to President Obama’s nuclear deal, Iran will have even more influence over Shiite Iraq than it ever had before. The deal affects so much more than Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. It represents a historic shift in the balance of power in the region, away from our allies and toward Iran.

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I have pledged to rescind the nuclear deal on Day One of my presidency. But between now and then, Iran will become far stronger than it is today. I intend to order a top-to-bottom review of Iran’s destabilizing activities, from terrorism to ballistic missiles, so that we can confront every aspect of Iran’s aggression against its neighbors and the United States.

A core goal of the new Middle East and South Asian coalition should be to deter the development of an Iranian bomb, and increase the costs of Iranian regional aggression. The only way the Iranian regime will become the peaceful and cooperative force that we all want it to be is if Iran knows it will pay a price for destructive behavior. A credible deterrent will require a serious political, diplomatic, economic, and military commitment from America, and a concerted effort from our coalition partners.


I’ve only scratched the surface of the many things we need to do to restore stability to the Middle East and South Asia. The one thing we must come to accept is that the peaceful and prosperous Middle East of the future may not look like it did 20 or 40 or 100 years ago. Barring a true catastrophe, I am not willing to send 150,000 American troops back to Iraq. And without that level of American involvement, the ethnic factions of Iraq and Syria may choose a different path than the one imposed on them at the end of World War I.

American power is most effective when our goals are realistic, when our endpoints are clearly defined, and when we are dedicated first and foremost to the preservation of international order.

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For decades, American politicians have obsessed over Palestinian statehood, while ignoring the conflicts between Sunni and Shiite, the ones between Arabs and Persians and Kurds, and the plight of Christian minorities. Today, it is those more ancient problems that are threatening the stability of the region and the security of the United States. They are problems that we can solve over time, but only after years of peace and cooperation.

#related#After World War II — the most destructive war in human history — the United States committed to help Europe regain its footing. It would have seemed unimaginable in those days, but today, institutions like NATO and the European Union have made Europe so stable that few people can imagine another all-out war in the heart of Europe.

Six thousand years ago, ancient Mesopotamia emerged as the cradle of our civilization. Mesopotamians were the first people on Earth to use the written word. They invented irrigation, and cities, and our system of measuring time. So many of the good things we take for granted in our lives were first developed by people who live in what we now call Iraq and Syria.

The barbarians of ISIS think that if they can destroy the historic remnants of Mesopotamia, they can also destroy the aspirations of Iraqis and Syrians to rejoin the civilized world. We owe it to our own security to ensure that civilization prevails over barbarism. Most important, we owe it to humanity.

— Rick Perry was governor of Texas from 2000 to 2014.


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