Nearly six years into a presidency devoted to ending wars, President Obama on Wednesday announced he is launching a new global war against the ultra-violent al Qaeda terror group known as the Islamic State.
The president’s new strategy of conducting U.S. airstrikes combined with foreign military ground operations against IS in Iraq and Syria, however, will be limited to the terror group, and lacks what analysts say is a broader ideological offensive against Islamist terror of all stripes.
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The president, in an Oval Office speech, dismissed the prospect of launching a Cold War-style ideological counter to Islamist terror, asserting IS is not "Islamic" because "no religion condones the killing of innocents."
However, the IS, also known as ISIL and ISIS, asserts it is not only Islamic but touts itself and its ideology as the sole legitimate leader of the world’s Muslims. And few Muslims around the world have denounced the group and its jihad.
The president announced that one element of the new strategy against IS will be to "counter its warped ideology." It was the first mention of an ideological element to the U.S. counterterrorism program.
Other facets of the program include increasing military support to Syrian opposition forces, stepping up efforts to cut off funding of IS, and trying to cut off the flow of the thousands of foreigners joining the group from around the world.
A White House fact sheet indicated the counter-ideology program will involve exposing the "true nature" of the terrorist group. "Clerics around the world have spoken up in recent weeks to highlight ISIL’s hypocrisy, condemning the group’s barbarity and criticizing its self-proclaimed ‘caliphate.’"
The administration plans to cooperate with "partners" in the Muslim world to expose what the fact sheet said were the group’s "hypocrisy" and "its false claim to be acting in the name of religion."
However, many of those Muslim partners in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa remain both ideological and material supporters of IS if not tacit sympathizers.
Defense analysts said that without an aggressive counter-ideology program, the new war on terrorism will likely fail.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist at Marine Corps University, said the new strategy reinforces the core deficiency of the current strategic approach to global jihadism.
"It completely lacks any serious counter-ideological component," Gorka said, adding that it will be impossible to defeat the group using airstrikes.
"Ultimate victory against such an enemy will only come when we delegitimize its motivating force—the power it has to recruit terrorists and insurgents, just as we delegitimized the totalitarianism of the Cold War," said Gorka, the Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory.
"It makes no sense, and often does harm, to assume that Islamist extremists can be appeased with financial aid, U.S. policy changes, and the usual currency of diplomacy," said Douglas Feith, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the George W. Bush administration. "And we’re unlikely to be able to defeat a group like ISIL if our strategy lacks a serious effort to counter the appeal of its ideology."
Obama spelled out in a nationally televised address what officials say will be a long-term effort to defeat the ultra-violent group now rampaging through parts of Syria and northern and eastern Iraq in a religiously-inspired, scorched-earth program to create a zone ruled by jihadists bent on imposing radical, anti-democratic Sharia law.
Obama said the program will involve a broad coalition "to roll back this terrorist threat."
"Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy," he said.
In deference to his liberal anti-war supporters, the president sought to distance the new war from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," Obama said. "This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."
David S. Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, stated in a blog post Wednesday that his agency will seek to cut off funding for IS through sanctions and other financial measures.
IS gains money from sympathizers in the Persian Gulf and other regional backers, criminal smuggling, extortion, and robbery, and oil sales from Syria and Iraq, Cohen said. It also has made "millions" on ransoming hostages.
"Working with others in the U.S. government, and with partners overseas, we are focused on disrupting each of these sources of ISIL financing," Cohen said, noting that Treasury will seek to block IS from accessing its money in the international financial system.
The renewed war on terror marks a turnaround for the president. Only weeks ago he dismissed the threat from IS as the "junior varsity" of terror. And he issued conflicting statements that alternatively said the group would be destroyed as well as "managed."
He then raised further questions about his leadership when he told reporters the administration had not yet formulated a strategy for dealing with IS, despite his closest advisers sounding alarms about the threat posed by hundreds of western IS jihadists returning to bring the war back to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.
The new strategy of hitting terrorists and backing surrogates on the front lines "is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years," Obama said.
However, the president, in his speech, carefully avoided any mention of how the administration badly mishandled the debacles in Libya and Syria.
The administration’s Libya policy sought to assist Libyan rebels in ousting the long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power.
But once ousted from power, Libya became a new safe haven for al Qaeda-linked militias and other Islamists. Over the past several weeks Islamist militias have driven the oil-rich North African state into chaos. The Tripoli government announced last August that it no longer controls the capital.
Then, in Syria, Obama ignored the civil war that began in 2011 between Syrian rebels and Bashar al Assad, hoping the multiple bad actors would devour each other.
Instead, Syria became yet another terrorist safe haven that benefited greatly from Obama administration policy of making the state off limits to command attacks and drone strikes such as those used in a limited way in Somalia and Yemen, which will now become a centerpiece of the war on IS in Syria and Iraq.
At one point, according to intelligence sources, al Qaeda central – the remnants of Osama bin Ladin’s terror group – announced plans to move its headquarters from northern Pakistan to Syria in effort to free its leaders from the threat of deadly U.S. drone missile strikes.
With little pressure from the U.S. military and tacit and even direct support from regional states, IS emerged from the Syrian rebel movement in June with a lightning incursion into Iraq, seizing the country’s second largest city, Mosul.
During the incursion, two Iraq divisions – trained and equipped by the U.S. military before it departed the country in 2011 — fled. IS then used the captured military gear to increase its power. And the group was able to obtain several hundred million dollars from banks in Mosul.
Mass murders by IS of Iraqis followed. But it took the videotaped beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff to intensify pressure on the president – who went golfing after making White House comments on the Foley killing – to formulate an anti-IS campaign.
Analysts say the administration’s main problem is the misguided progressive foreign policy notion that the current global terrorist threat is not related to the apocalyptic Islamist ideology common to both violent radicals of IS, al Qaeda, and others, and less extreme political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Feith, the former defense undersecretary, said the U.S. government, and the State Department in particular, is "downright ideological in its unwillingness to take hostile ideologies seriously."
There is no single leader in the U.S. government charged with responsibility for a strategy and plan of action for countering IS ideology, Feith said. "But the president should assign the task to someone and invest seriously in it."
Many politically oriented Islamists were appointed to middle and upper level posts in the administration and have influenced policy and prevented national security and law enforcement agencies from fully understanding the terrorist threat.
One example is the semantic restrictions imposed on intelligence analysts at some U.S. government agencies that prohibit use of words Islam, Islamist, and jihadist in reports over fears the terminology might offend Muslims. Another is the administration’s classification of the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Maj. Nidal Hassan, an Islamist terrorist linked to al Qaeda in Yemen, as "work-place violence."
"Thirteen years after 9/11, U.S. policymakers still cannot define the nature of the threat," said Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "They refuse to accept that we are fighting a radical Islamist ideology that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate."
Roggio said al Qaeda has made clear its goal is establishing an Islamist theocracy and now the Islamic State, formerly al Qaeda in Iraq, is seeking the same.
"Until policymakers accept this fact and create a meaningful strategy to deal with it, we are bound to tread water in the fight against global jihadists," Roggio said.
The new war on terrorism marks a shift in direction for Obama. The president has sought since taking office in 2009 to end the U.S.-led war on terrorism launched after the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.
The goal was to terminate the George W. Bush administration’s concerted anti-terrorism programs that led to regional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with covert military action elsewhere.
The president made clear throughout his 2012 re-election campaign that his goal was to cut U.S. military budgets and forces, along with overseas activities in order to fund domestic projects he said would create jobs.
"Four years ago I promised to end the war in Iraq," Mr. Obama said to cheers and applause during his nomination acceptance speech in two years ago. "We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have. We've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead."
The president also promised not to invest in new military hardware and instead "pay down" the U.S. debt and spend money on building roads, bridges, and schools "because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it's time to do some nation building right here at home."
Weeks later, on Sept. 11, 2012, Islamist terrorists attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The administration, in the midst of the presidential campaign, at first falsely portrayed the attack as the result of a spontaneous demonstration by Muslims outraged at an Internet video.
In his victory speech on Election Day, 2012, Mr. Obama, echoing his globalist outlook, said he would move the country "with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being."
Prior to tonight’s speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed the coming war on ISIL during a meeting with reporters in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday.
Asked about the administration’s new counterterrorism program, Mr. Hagel said: "Well, one thing that's very clear to me — and I think the president has said it quite clearly, I've said it clearly — is how far they should go with ISIL is to defeat ISIL, is to absolutely destroy the capability of ISIL to do any more harm to people."
"Now, we've all said that this is not going to be a short-term endeavor most likely," he said. "I don't know how long, but I think we need to be prepared that this isn't going to be a quickly accomplished objective."
Hagel added that he won support for that goal from members of Congress he contacted recently, including Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate.