It wasn’t much fun to be a journalist in the aftermath of the Iraq War. When it became clear that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, many Americans, rightly, lambasted the media for not asking tougher questions about the Bush administration’s pre-war claims. In the fevered run-up to war, many in the press had taken it as self-evident that Saddam Hussein had the capacity and desire to threaten the United States. Once the war went south, it didn’t look so self-evident after all.
It’s important to remember that moment now, amid our current bout of war fever. It may be worth attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for purely humanitarian reasons. After all, the United States launched air wars against Serbia (twice) and Libya without claiming that their regimes posed a national-security threat, and ISIS is more savage than either Slobodan Milosevic or Muammer al-Qaddafi. It may be worth attacking ISIS because of the threat it poses to our allies in the Middle East. If unchecked, the group could destabilize not only Iraq and Syria, but potentially Jordan and Saudi Arabia too. (Judging by social media, ISIS has a lot of fans in the kingdom of Saud.)
But, for the most part, that’s not how this war is being sold. It’s being sold as a war to protect the United States homeland against a profound terrorist threat. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein recently said, “The threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated.” Her Republican colleague Jim Inhofe has claimed that ISIS is “rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city” and that as a result, “We’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.”
This time, the press needs to aggressively investigate whether that’s true. If it is, then the Obama administration should be considering ground troops, as General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, reportedly requested—domestic politics be damned. We sent them into Afghanistan, after all. And if the ISIS threat really is greater than the al-Qaeda threat was on September 10, as Inhofe suggests, then there’s a case for doing the same in Iraq and Syria today.
If, on the other hand, ISIS lacks the motivation and capacity for anything close to 9/11, then President Obama’s stated justification for even an air war looks weak. So far, the press hasn’t done a good enough job of determining if this is the case. Many publications have uncritically accepted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s claim about the number of Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS—a figure that New America Foundation terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues is dramatically exaggerated. Other media commentary simply assumes that if Westerners go to fight with ISIS in Iraq or Syria, they’re destined to attack Europe or the United States. But that’s not true. Bergen notes, for instance, that of the 29 Americans who have gone to fight with the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab, none have tried to commit terrorism against the United States. One reason is that many of them ended up dead.
Press coverage of ISIS often ignores the fact that, in the past, the group has not targeted the American homeland. Jihadist groups, even monstrous ones, don’t inevitably go after the United States. Al-Qaeda began doing so as part of a specific strategy. After fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, it initially turned its attention to overthrowing regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri considered oppressive, corrupt, and un-Islamic. It was only when those direct efforts failed that al-Qaeda hatched a new strategy: attacking those regimes’ patron, the United States. That’s still al-Qaeda’s strategy. And as a result, so far, the U.S. has arguably had more to fear from those Westerners who have joined the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, than from those who have joined ISIS. But, ironically, al-Nusra may be a beneficiary of America’s war, as it takes territory that ISIS now claims.
It’s entirely possible that ISIS would, on its own, make the transition to attacks inside the United States. But, as Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director, has suggested, declaring war on the group makes that transition more likely, not less. It doesn’t in any way lessen the despicable, barbaric nature of the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff to note that ISIS justified them as a response to U.S. airstrikes.
It’s also possible that even if ISIS as an organization doesn’t plan complex, 9/11-style operations against the U.S., some of its operatives might take matters into their own hands, in “lone-wolf” attacks like the one initiated by the “underwear bomber” in the skies over Detroit. But lone-wolf attacks, serious as they are, are highly unlikely to do anywhere near the damage al-Qaeda did on September 11. That’s one reason The New York Times, in an article on Thursday that models the journalism we need, quotes former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin calling Beltway discussion of the ISIS threat a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
President Obama, to his credit, has not done that. Unlike President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War, he has not hyped the threat. Look at what he said in his speech on Wednesday night (the italics are mine).
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States,” he said. “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans—have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Lots of things could threaten the United States. The critical question, as the U.S. launches a war against ISIS that will likely take years and have myriad unforeseen consequences, is what “could” actually means. This time, the press needs to do a better job of finding out.