Providence | 4.18.16
By Alan W. Dowd
It may come as a
surprise to the president, but key members of his national-security team say America
is at war.
“We are definitively at war with ISIS,” Secretary of State
John Kerry said last
week. This comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declaring, “We’re at war…There
are American troops in combat every day.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford bluntly
adds that what he and his troops have waged the past 14 years “has
been war.” And from the outset, the U.S. military has called its post-9/11 campaign of
campaigns “the long war.”
warplanes, attack helicopters, drones, artillery, commandos and Marines striking targets in Syria, Iraq,Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya—and U.S. personnel dying—it seems obvious that America is
So, why would what’s
obvious to most informed Americans come as a surprise to the
commander-in-chief? For starters, President Obama insists
that he “was elected
to end wars.” Thus, as if to airbrush away
all the unpleasantness of the Bush era, the Obama White House expunged the “war on terrorism”
phraseology from official pronouncements. President Obama’s secretary of
homeland security went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused
disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
president does not describe this as a ‘war on terrorism’” or a “global war,”
then-presidential aide John Brennan explained in 2009, noting, “How you define
a problem shapes how you address it.” Brennan, who is now CIA director,
explained that “We are at war with al Qaeda,” adding, “You can never fully
defeat a tactic like terrorism.”
came what President Obama viewed as validation of his approach: the killing of Osama
bin Laden. The president used the success of SEAL Team 6 as a springboard into
what can best be described as the “post-post-9/11 era.” He promised, “The tide
of war is receding.” In 2013, he said “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat.” By 2014, he assured the American people that it was time “to turn the page on more than a
decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Yet even as America’s war on terror officially ended, terror’s war on
civilization went on. There were massacres in
Kenya, mass-kidnappings and mass-murder in Nigeria, bombings in Pakistan, IED
attacks and ambushes in Afghanistan, a massacre in Ft. Hood and a bombing in
Boston, coordinated assaults in Benghazi and Brussels and Paris, beastly
killings across Syria, and a jihadist takeover of western Iraq, which brings us
to ISIS—the al Qaeda offshoot President Obama once compared to a
“JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.”
In fact, ISIS is a jihadist superpower:
square-miles of Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in Libya, Egypt and Nigeria.
The number of foreigner fighters aligned with
ISIS in Iraq and Syria has doubled,
with 36,000 people from 86 countries now fighting under the ISIS banner. Some
34 militant groups from around the world have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
A congressional analysisreveals ISIS and its disciples have conducted 60 terrorist attacks in 20
countries outside Iraq and Syria. These include Brussels, Paris, Ankara, the
Sinai, Beirut, Tunis, San Bernardino, Jakarta, Istanbul and Aden.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reports ISIS is using chemical weapons in Iraq and
The rapid rise of
ISIS is an unintended—though not unpredictable—consequence of a policy that
misunderstood the interconnected, metastasizing nature of jihadism and misread
the takedown of bin Laden as a strategic victory, rather than a tactical
success. Consider that there are 41 jihadist
groups in 24 countries today (up from 21 in 18
countries in 2004), or that the Taliban controls more of Afghanistantoday than at any time since 2001, or
that there are more terrorist safe havens today “than at any time in history,”
according to Clapper.
short, if President Bush’s “global war on terrorism” was too broad, we now know
President Obama’s war on “core al Qaeda” was far too limited.
The phrase “global war on terrorism” was always imperfect. We cannot defeat terrorism, critics
like Brennan countered, because it is a tactic. Hence, they argued that a war
on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst.
the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling this struggle a war
accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and
destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.” Moreover, the
civilized world has defeated or otherwise marginalized certain tactics and
methods. In his book “Surprise, Security and the American Experience,” historian
John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and genocide. (To be sure, these
global ills still exist, but they are not commonplace and are not practiced by
Yet this isn’t
about vindicating the Bush administration’s far-flung war on terror. It’s about
protecting U.S. citizens, territory, interests and allies. But don’t take my
word for it: The FBI has approximately 900 active investigations into
ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states. Some 250 Americans have attempted to travel to the
Middle East to join ISIS. As FBI Director James Comey concludes, “Their ability to
have a safe haven from which to gather resources, people, plan and plot
increases the risk of their ability to mount a sophisticated attack against the
According to Lt.
Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, “We have to
energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during WWII or
during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a
Can anyone honestly say the U.S. government is doing that today?
The first step in correcting
this mistake is to call this war a war. The president may not like the term
“war on terror,” he may want to turn the page on a decade of war, he may
believe that saying something long enough and loud enough will make it so. But
war was forced upon America in 2001. It did not end when President Bush left
office in 2009, or when bin Laden was killed in 2011. And it did not end when
President Obama declared, “the tide of war is receding.”
As French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy counseledafter his country’s 9/11, “Dare to utter the terrible word ‘war’… The idea is
heartbreaking and appalling, but it is a fact that we must face.”
are stubborn things. And the facts are that a constellation of states and
stateless groups seeks, by maiming civilization, to overturn the liberal international
order established after World War II.
The way to deal with such an enemy is to
defeat it, and that presupposes war. To be sure, the
war on terror enfolds more than military operations. Intelligence, law
enforcement, financial systems and diplomacy play important parts, as they did
during the Cold War. However, these are supporting parts because ISIS, al Qaeda
and their kind have defined this as a war.
Negotiation and compromise
are not options with an enemy that, in bin Laden’s words, “loves death.”
Deterrence and containment are wholly ineffective in the face of a global
argument may offend some people of faith. Isaiah, after all, called our savior
the “Prince of Peace.” Yet Jesus had sterner words for scholars and scribes
than He did for soldiers. In fact, when a centurion asked Him to heal an ailing
servant, Jesus didn’t admonish the military commander to put down his sword.
Instead, He commended him. As soldier-turned-author Ralph Peters reminds us, “Throughout both
testaments, we encounter violent actors and soldiers. They face timeless moral
dilemmas. Interestingly, their social validity is not questioned even in the
Gospels...It is assumed that soldiers are, however regrettably, necessary.”
Indeed they are. In the same way, wars, however regrettably, are
sometimes necessary. As Solomon grimly concluded, “There is a time for war.” This
is such a time.
come to this conclusion is not to celebrate war or thirst for it. Rather, it is
to see this broken world as it is. Wars are costly and destructive. The
costliness of war is one reason why it is to be prevented, if at all possible. The
best way to do that is through overwhelming deterrent strength—something U.S.
policymakers have forgotten in recent years. (That’s a subject for another essay.) But the costliness or
destructiveness of an action does not make it wrong. If that were so, then it
would be wrong for SWAT teams to lob flashbang grenades into criminal hideouts,
or policemen to open fire on armed drug dealers, or state troopers to conduct
high-speed chases, or FBI agents to descend on hostage-takers.
at home or abroad, evil people who wish us harm have to be captured or killed
for the protection of innocents, for the maintenance or order and for the
preservation of civilization.
you define a problem,” Brennan counseled in 2009, “shapes how you address it,” which
is true. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and the troops have
defined this thing we’re in the midst of as a war. Seven years and three months
into his administration, President Obama remains unconvinced.