It’s been exactly a year since an Islamic terrorist named Omar Mateen walked into Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and opened fire. He killed 49 people, injured 53, and — in the middle of the attack — pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Mateen’s strike represents one of ISIS’s greatest single victories in its war against the West. For the cost of a single expendable martyr, jihadists executed their most successful U.S. terrorist attack since 9/11, and they did so in a way that vindicated ISIS’s distinctive tactical approach. Rather than relying on hard-to-plan (and easier-to-stop) spectacular attacks, ISIS seeks to plan or inspire a broader range of smaller attacks. It’s a strategy that’s paid off in Europe and in the United States, where the rate and deadliness of terror plots has increased markedly since 2014.
Thus, I have to ask. Why does the ISIS caliphate still exist?
Is there a historical precedent for a foreign enemy — especially one that controls a distinct geographic space and has its own distinct armed forces — striking American and allied cities with so little military response? ISIS-inspired attacks have now killed or wounded hundreds of Americans and American allies. ISIS has hit multiple American communities. It’s hit the great capitals of Europe. It continues to not only generate waves of jihadist propaganda but to attempt to infiltrate our towns and cities.
Yet the response of the world’s most powerful military — and its powerful allies — is to launch a heavily restricted, slow-motion war that heavily relies on poorly trained and often-unreliable local allies to do the vast majority of the fighting on the ground. In other words, the United States has actually delegated part of its national defense to Shiite militias. It’s a stunning development, one that would cause generations of our national ancestors to recoil in horror and to hang their heads in shame.
Why have we been so weak? The answer lies in two words — confusion and exhaustion — and neither is a legitimate response.
First, let’s deal with the confusion. It’s a strange reality of our times that entire segments of the American public and the American elite seem to go out of their way to refuse to acknowledge the true threat we face. The response to the Orlando massacre is a prime example. Remember when the New York Times editorialized that Republicans were partly to blame for an attack by an Islamic jihadist? Even today, the Washington Post’s story highlighting memorial services for the victims characterizes Orlando as just another city “upended by gun violence.” The New York Times editorialized again, this time calling for more gun control — despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of terror deaths (in America and the West) come through planes, cars, trucks, and bombs, not firearms.
The result is that millions of Americans now believe that someone (or something) else shares blame with terrorists for terrorist actions. Mateen couldn’t kill anyone if it weren’t for those gun nuts. Fundamentalist Christians desensitized Americans to homophobia. How can we have the national confidence to strike at Muslim terrorists if too many Americans believe we should stop them by changing America? Indeed, that belief was part and parcel of the Obama-era “legitimate grievances” theory of Islamic terror. Jihadists are bad, yes, but we can blunt their effectiveness by addressing the “legitimate grievances” they have against the West.
Yet this theory ignores their actual core grievance, that we don’t bend the knee to their version of the Islamic faith. When “convert or die” is the message, there is no compromise. There is no appeasement.
But America can deal with moral and intellectual confusion. It struggles when that confusion is compounded by a strange form of exhaustion. Those tens of millions of Americans who haven’t fought are somehow “weary” of a conflict that’s imposed no measurable cost on their lives. America hasn’t been on anything like a real war footing since the frightening first days after 9/11. Soldiers returning home from even Surge deployments were often struck by how little the American people were even conscious of the battles raging abroad.
Both Left and Right have more than their share of voters who decry as a “warmonger” any person who publicly argues that we can and should take the fight to the enemy. Indeed, a large part of Trump’s appeal was based on various pledges that Americans would be less committed in the Middle East, that we could somehow neutralize the terror threat without substantial foreign engagement. It was as if people believed a few better bombing runs were all that stood between the United States and victory. For millions of his voters, “America first” meant American troops at home — even as ISIS endured, the Taliban regrouped, and al-Qaeda clung to life.
The current threat environment is in large part the result of the failure of a strategy of retreat and delegation.
That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate military and strategic debates over the best way to defeat terrorist armies and contain and minimize the everlasting threat of jihad. But we should understand that the current threat environment is in large part the result of the failure of a strategy of retreat and delegation. We should understand that we can’t simply bomb or drone the enemy into extinction. Our special forces are the closest thing we have to superheroes, but not even the Avengers can be everywhere at once. It’s hard to take a city on the cheap.
Compounding the tragedy is the reality that the United States and its allies can thoroughly rout ISIS and reset the balance of power in the Middle East with a mere fraction of their actual and potential military and economic strength. ISIS is a paper tiger on the battlefield. Its cities would fall rapidly in the face of a true American-led military offensive. But the grim truth of the war against terror is that nothing — absolutely nothing — comes without cost. Decisive American force means American lives lost and bodies shattered on the battlefield. Slow-motion war means more civilian lives lost and bodies shattered in nightclubs, during holiday parties, and while walking on campus to class. Here’s the difference: The Americans who put on the uniform signed up knowing the potential cost. When did our civilians volunteer to die?