One informed observer of the national-security state, Marc Ambinder, is doing his best to puzzle out President Obama's approach to fighting the radical militia ISIS. He is sympathetic to the difficult decisions Obama faces, as am I, but his analysis leans heavily on the notion that counterterrorism is a gray zone beyond classification. That belief causes him to be too forgiving of the president's illegal power grabs.
"With his administration using the word 'war' and promising to 'destroy' ISIS, Obama has gotten himself into more of a pickle. I don't actually think, in his heart of hearts, Obama believes that the U.S. is going to 'war' with anyone," Ambinder writes. "Obama does not think the United States has to fight a 'war on terrorism.' There is no such thing. War, real war, is different. Qualitatively. Fundamentally. War implies an end. Combating violent extremism, which was the administration's phrase of choice, speaks to the enduring nature of the conflict."
The larger context, as Ambinder sees it (his emphasis):
Counterterrorism campaigns do not neatly fit into our black-and-white descriptions of the way conventional wars begin and end. There will never be "victory" in the sense that terrorists will stop trying to attack the United States. What there will be, instead, is managed risk. A constant effort to detect and degrade the threat. A balance of measures—political, military, legal, and otherwise—focusing on the capacity of terrorists to create havoc outside their geographical boundaries. Preventing them from obtaining or developing weapons of mass destruction.
Later he expands on why he doesn't think that we're really at war:
The number of U.S. combat troops in Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq—three places where Islamic extremists are on the march—is tiny, a fraction of the number that President Bush mobilized for Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost, too, is not war-like. If Obama keeps even 2,000 special operations forces and their enablers in Iraq until the end of his presidency, the cost is negligible.
This is a curious metric for war. Yes, the War on Terrorism is different from other conflicts in various ways. But why does the number of troops needed as compared to Iraq matter? Why does the cost, which is only "negligible" in terms of the rest of a gargantuan military budget, matter? Why must Obama be graded on a curve set by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?