National Security & Defense

Brussels Shows the High Cost of Obama’s Slow-Motion War Strategy

Flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf, February 2016. (Photo: US Navy)

In 2014, Barack Obama decided to respond to jihadist shock and awe with the military and propaganda equivalent of stop and bore. Let’s briefly recall those terrifying days. ISIS burst out of its Syrian stronghold, routed entire divisions of the corrupt and incompetent Iraqi Army, took Mosul, and threatened the Kurdish homeland. Yazidis faced extinction. Iraqi Christians faced genocide. The Kurds — lacking heavy weapons — faced defeat.

Obama, to his credit, acted. Although he had committed the unpardonable sin of abandoning Iraq in 2011 — leaving it vulnerable to exactly the kind of jihadist counteroffensive that military officials predicted — he at least did not commit the sin of Saigon, of turning our backs entirely as an ally burns. American air strikes helped stabilize the front, inflicted losses on ISIS, and launched a slow-burn war of attrition — a war that has since cost ISIS roughly 20 percent of its territory and thousands of fighters.

A success? Only if one defines “success” as staving off ultimate defeat. By other measures, however, the Obama strategy has perversely enabled ISIS — leaving it with time and space to consolidate its victories, spread its influence, and plot terror attacks while providing it with exactly the kind of propaganda victories that jihadists need.

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Since ISIS was stopped cold near Erbil, it has franchised out to Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Western Europe. It has not only established safe havens far afield from its core strongholds, it’s beginning to educate the next generation of jihadists. ISIS isn’t just a terrorist gang. It represents a genuine effort to recreate a Caliphate, with the union of military, political, and religious control — including ironclad control over the religious and political education of children and young adults.

At the same time, while America’s back-page air war has empowered a number of battlefield victories against ISIS — notably in Ramadi and in northern Syria — ISIS has kept its monopoly on shock and awe. By bringing down a Russian airliner, transforming Paris into an urban battlefield, and striking at the heart of Brussels, ISIS has not only extended its reach into the heart of the West, it has maintained its hold on the jihadist imagination.

#share#American leaders have long misunderstood the psychology of jihad — especially the psychology of jihadist martyrdom. Jihad thrives on victory. Its theology is a theology of victory. Death and martyrdom are in the service of victory. Although America’s air campaign has left ISIS at a battlefield disadvantage, it has allowed it to retain the propaganda initiative. Grainy photos of bombs dropping on faraway ISIS convoys pale in comparison to the stark and horrifying images of carnage in the middle of European capitals. Americans bomb trucks in the desert. ISIS bombs Brussels.

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Consequently, it is vitally important that American and allied arms hand ISIS a spectacular defeat. By many accounts, months of bombing have hurt ISIS’s morale, hollowed out its front-line ranks, and drained its fighting spirit. ISIS fighters fled rather than martyr themselves in Ramadi. Indeed, ISIS recognized its peril, burning alive the fighters who retreated from Anbar Province to deter any future withdrawals. In short, ISIS is ripe for a humiliating public defeat.

The Iraqi Army is preparing an offensive into Mosul. It must not be allowed to fail. If that means American ground troops and American artillery in addition to American air power, then so be it.

#related#But even if allied armies can deal ISIS a significant defeat, incalculable damage has been done. ISIS has infiltrated the West, it has inspired attacks in the United States, and it’s metastasizing. Even the most aggressive foreseeable war strategy will still leave it in control of an unacceptable amount of territory.

Aggression, however, can at least stop the spread and can loosen ISIS’s hold on the hearts and minds of young Islamic men and women. The scourge of jihad will never leave us entirely, but it can be weakened, diminished, and shamed. Defeat and humiliate ISIS, and you defeat its theology. Defeat its theology, and you break its core appeal. It’s time for the world to see ISIS fighters flee for their lives. It’s time for the world to see ISIS flags in flames, stomped on in the streets. Slow-motion warfare has to end.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.


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