Creating Terror Is Easier Than Fighting It

Obama's critics are hard-pressed to explain how they would lead a war-weary public against ISIS.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

President Obama horribly underestimates ISIS. He called the Islamic State a “jayvee team” before it beheaded Americans. He claimed ISIS was "contained" before it attacked Paris. Now he allows his foreign policy/public-relations team to say ISIS lacks the capability to attack the United States before … God-knows-what.

So this column is not a defense of Obama, a wartime president elected by a public tired of war. But I would like to acknowledge that the president's options range from bad to worse and that nobody has an easy or certain response to eradicating a cult of Islamic extremists whose aim is to destroy Western civilization.

The easiest way to expose the phony binary narrative is to unpack one. I’ve chosen The Washington Post op-ed by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Headlined, “Obama must defeat the Islamic State, not harass it,” the former Massachusetts governor writes: "After Paris, it’s clear: Doing the minimum won’t make us safe. It’s time the president stopped hedging and took meaningful steps to defend us and our allies.”

OK, so what do we do?

“We must begin by identifying the enemy.” Like many other conservatives, Romney wants Obama to use the term “radical Islamists,” because we can’t defeat an enemy we’re afraid to name. Setting aside the Bush-era reasoning behind language sensitivity, it’s silly to suggest that the ISIS could be destroyed by the universal adoption of an adjective.

Obama must “construct a comprehensive strategy that integrates our efforts with those of the Kurds, Turks, Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because Obama is already working with these and other allies to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes, intelligence, training, and even U.S. troops.

Many argue that Obama should inject thousands of more troops, but somebody needs to convince an American public burned by the Iraq war that another “surge” is in its best interest. Somebody also needs to find fresh troops, because we’ve already asked too much of the over-deployed volunteer force. Wouldn’t it be more intellectually honest for hawks to support a draft? If ISIS is an existential threat, why not consider something less than a draft: requiring young Americans to serve for a year in the military or a domestic-service program?

“The Islamic State’s recruiting propaganda must be countered with a much larger, more focused effort to discredit it and replace it with traditional Islamic values.” President Bush appointed Karen Hughes to this challenge after the September 11, 2001, attacks and discovered two things: It’s harder than you’d think to counter cultish propaganda, and neoconservative Republicans think it’s a waste of time. Personally, I’d welcome a push by GOP lawmakers to increase financing in this area. Until they do, this is just a talking point.

“The West much stop the insanity of welcoming hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East without knowing who exactly they are.” First, the straw man: “without knowing who exactly they are.” The United States has the capability to safely screen most of the Syrian refugees; Romney concedes the point in his next sentence, which gives near-blanket absolution to women, children, and the elderly. Second, the potential hypocrisy: A political party rooted in the proposition that life is sacred cannot take an absolutist anti-refugee stance.

This column is not an attack on Romney. He is giving voice to concerns about Obama’s attentiveness. He is using his platform to press for a better result under the next president. And, in the end, Romney’s lack of new or certain policies are a reminder that creating terror is easier than fighting it.