Sunday, December 20, 2015

It’s Time to Tell the Truth About the Long War Against Terrorism. By Aaron David Miller.

It’s Time to Tell the Truth About the Long War Against Terrorism. By Aaron David Miller. Foreign Policy, December 14, 2015.


Why saying the United States can destroy the Islamic State is worse than providing false hope.

On Dec. 6, four days after the San Bernardino attacks, in an Oval Office address (only the third such address of his almost concluded eight-year presidency), President Barack Obama reassured Americans that we would prevail against the threat of terrorism. “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said. “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”

The president confidently went to great lengths to tell the nation that we will draw on all aspects of American power. But Obama did not tell us the whole truth. A lie is lie only if you tell somebody something you don’t really believe yourself. And without personally straining the bounds of credulity to the breaking point, I don’t believe Obama believes that his current strategy will “destroy” the Islamic State or any other organization that tries to harm us. The fact that he omitted his customary word “ultimately” from his remarks likely reflected the urgency of the moment rather than any real conviction that the war Obama described in his address would be won easily or quickly.

The president isn’t alone in his desire to offer up definitive solutions to the war against terrorism. A number of presidential candidates, primarily on the Republican side, have likewise made super confident and even more grandiose pronouncements about winning the war against jihadi terrorism and destroying the Islamic State. Donald Trump: “I would bomb the shit out of them.” Marco Rubio: “If America does not make this [war against terrorism] our fight, the West will not win it.” Lindsey Graham: “[The United States] should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria.” And Ted Cruz: “We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.” Even Hillary Clinton, whose rhetoric is very much toned down, has spoken of a plan not to contain the Islamic State but to “defeat and destroy ISIS.”

The only problem with this kind of tough talk is that the goal of winning definitively the war against jihadi terrorism, including destroying and defeating the Islamic State, is about as likely as winning the war against drugs, poverty, mental illness, and banning guns in America. The president, as a self-described Niebuhrian and a pragmatist who understands that more often than not the best you can do is to come up with “proximate solutions for insoluble problems,” ought to know better. Sure, the nation needs to be reassured — jihadi terrorism isn’t an existential threat to America. But in that moment, the nation could have used — and could still use — some critically important reality therapy in what is certainly going to be a very long war against Islamist terrorism. And here’s why.

The United States isn’t Europe. But does that matter?

Terrorism experts argue that four factors make Europe much more vulnerable to jihadi attacks than the United States: 1) Paris was easily accessible; 2) there are many European nationals quite eager to kill their own countrymen; 3) there’s a euro-jihadi infrastructure; and lastly, 4) European security services just can’t handle the caseload tracking and preempting attacks by the number of homegrown, returning, or infiltrating jihadis. This rather comforting analysis makes sense up to a point.

It’s true that for the United States’ liquid assets (two oceans on either side), our better border controls, and a better integrated and less aggrieved Muslim American community, all give us an advantage. But over time, how much of one? In fact, homegrown jihadis don’t need a big support team or infrastructure for DIY terrorism; there are plenty of guns on hand, and by the looks of things, the San Bernardino shooters were impossible for law enforcement to track. Add a dose of easy access to jihadi propaganda on the web, nativist anti-Muslim backlash, and Trump’s “keep out the Muslims” campaign and you’ll easily double the size of a radicalized pool, a percentage of which will act violently. You don’t need Islamic State-directed operations or Raqqa-dispatched hit teams when inspiration will do nicely.

The terrorism epicenter

With all due respect to the solutionists, the war on jihadi terrorism — and that’s what it is — is a generational enterprise. Fourteen years after 9/11, more than twice the time it took for the allies to win World War II, the jihadis are thriving.

My FP colleague the inestimable Micah Zenko noted that terrorist-related deaths grew by more than 4,000 percent from 2002 to 2009 and by 148 percent from 2010 to 2014. And while he pointed out that last year not a single American was killed within the United States in a terrorist attack, the stats for 2015 are already much more tragic. The fact is, the Islamic State, al Qaeda affiliates, and a host of other maniacal groups slouching toward Bethlehem waiting to be born will not be extinguished anytime soon. Bad or no governance, leaving empty spaces in a Middle East that is angry, broken, and dysfunctional — as well as riven with sectarian tensions and pushed by powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in their own deadly proxy war — guarantees the health and well-being of the jihadi enterprise. This region will be spewing hatred, irrationality, illogic, and a vicious Islamist medieval ideology for years to come. America won’t be the only target to be sure. In the past month, the Islamic State has either directed or inspired terrorist attacks on permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. But the United States, both for what it represents and does in the world, will be high on the jihadi hit list.

You can’t defeat something big with nothing big.

Despite Obama’s pledge to destroy the Islamic State, it’s highly arguable whether the United States or any other power has the will, means, or skill to do that. Paris was less a game-changer than it was another cruel turn in the long war against jihadi terrorism. Obama even boasts of a coalition of 65 nations that have pledged to defeat the Islamic State. But how many of these really count? This presumed coalition of the willing, including of course the Brits and the French, also includes a lot of other countries whose contributions are at best marginal and too many others that are better described as the unwilling and self-interested. Just look around. Russia’s priority is keeping Bashar al-Assad afloat, Turkey is hammering the Kurds, and the Saudis are busy hitting the Houthis in Yemen. On top of this, no possible combination of local forces can stabilize Syria, and neither NATO nor the Western powers are willing to commit enough ground forces to destroy Islamic State sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria to guarantee the jihadis won’t return. More disconcerting, the Islamic State has jumped borders now and is operating with impunity in Sinai, Libya, Yemen, and in parts of Africa. The jihadi cancer has gone global, and the great powers can’t seem to stop it. And if we’re waiting for the House of Islam to reform itself and purge its own radicals and extremists, we’ll be waiting for a very long time to come.

The wild, wild West

As terrorism analysts Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin point out, in counterterrorism and law enforcement we’ve come a long way since 9/11: “Post-9/11 visa requirements and no-fly lists weed out most bad actors, and both the Bush and Obama administrations demanded that countries in our visa waiver program provide data on extremists through information-sharing pacts called HSPD-6 agreements.” And we’re making improvements in other areas too, such as the agreement with the European Union over passenger name records in 2012.

Keeping bad guys (and girls) out is one thing. What about tracking U.S. citizens already here, particularly those who seem to live normal lives as the San Bernardino shooters seemed to have done? The FBI has 900 inquiries related to the Islamic State now open in all 50 states out of some 10,000 counterterrorism cases. And how can you intensively watch and track them all? Add the ease with which weapons and explosives can be accessed; toss in the size of the country and the ease and anonymity with which people move about; and add a pinch of the freedoms that protect us all and you have a powerful brew just waiting to boil over. Indeed, some would argue that in comparison to ordinary mass killings, jihadi terrorism is rare. As of Dec. 2, in 209 of the 336 days this year, there was at least one shooting a day that killed or injured more than four people.

None of this depressing reality therapy appeared in the president’s address to the nation. Understandably, Obama wasn’t interested in scaring Americans but unifying and reassuring them. Maybe like 9/11, what happened in San Bernardino was an anomaly, and we will be spared another jihadi attack for another 14 years.

I very much doubt it. DIY terrorism thrives where there is an abundance of soft targets: freedom, anonymity, access to guns, and aberrant human behavior motivated by ideology and religious extremism, in this case radical Islam. Indeed, in today’s world, no other kinds of religious extremists are directing and inspiring their followers to kill innocents on a global scale other than Islamist ones.

We can certainly weaken the Islamic State. We can make it harder for jihadis to operate in Syria and maybe even destroy the Islamic State’s base of operations there, if we figured out a way to fill the empty spaces with reliable local partners and better governance. But we won’t win the war against the jihadis anymore than we can win the war against crime, drugs, or mental illness. Get real, President Obama and whoever will be the next president. We’ll be fighting jihadis for years to come. Level with us and don’t infantilize us: We deserve honesty and clarity on this issue. Sure, the goal is to win the war against jihadis. But this isn’t World War II, neither in the magnitude of the threat nor in the commitment you’re prepared to make. Forget the grandiosity and grand coalitions. In the meantime, just help us survive this war over the long run, hopefully with our values and our security more or less intact.

Mandy Patinkin Pleads With Stephen Colbert’s Audience to Resist Islamophobia. By Sarah Burris.

“This fearmongering and hatred thats going on by people running for the President is so misguided,” Patinkin said.

When Mandy Patinkin walked out onto the “Late Show” stage Friday night, it became clear that he wasn’t just there as some Hollywood actor promoting the season finale of “Homeland” to Stephen Colbert.

Patinkin was just as serious as when he avenged his father’s death in the “Princess Bride,” which Ted Cruz keeps quoting. Right off the bat, Patinkin began addressing the nature of good and evil and the models through which we decide to go to war.

At the end of season four of “Homeland,” his character Saul was being held captive and wanted to take his own life instead of have his life mean that terrorists went free as part of an exchange. Saul realizes it’s getting harder to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys anymore. “He looked in the mirror and he went ‘I’m the enemy.’ The line of good and evil runs through each one of us,” Patinkin said.

Patinkin said that anyone who is prepared to take a life is placing themselves above the law and believing that they are God. While he was talking about war and peace, he could very well have been talking about the right-wing trope about “good guys with guns.”

But Patinkin was just getting started. “It is essential that we stop this paradigm of violence that Saul has learned,” he said passionately. “By that I mean, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked, this violence ‘an eye for an eye.’ We have to come up with a new paradigm … and what is that new paradigm if war isn’t working? Where you spend $4 trillion on this war. What is being spent on the marginalized people in humanity? All of these wonderful Muslim men and women that have no education, no opportunity, no good schooling and so what do they do? They look for someone else who’s saying ‘will give you a better life.’ Why aren’t we talking that money that’s used for bombs, and making schools and hospitals and homes and opportunity?”

Patinkin went on to say that many people defend bombs because “bombs make a lot of money for a lot of people and education doesn’t make money.” From there he addressed fear saying that it’s normal and healthy to feel it. “This fearmongering and hatred that’s going on by people running for the President of United States, is so misguided. It is important that we open up our arms and our hearts to refugees that are fleeing a horrifying situation.” Patinkin spent time earlier this month in Lesbos with the refugees, holding a baby in his arms he feared was dead.

“When you meet these women and children you will not be afraid!” Patinkin pleaded with the audience to help the refugees. “Humanity is a good thing when exercised… Use your imagination about how you can make the world a better place, and bomb all of these marginalized people with opportunity.”

Watch the captivating and emotional video [at top].

Saying “Radical Islam” Has Nothing to Do With Defeating Terrorism. By Fareed Zakaria.

Saying “radical Islam” has nothing to do with defeating terrorism. By Fareed Zakaria. Washington Post, December 17, 2015.


“Radical Islamic terrorism.” Apparently, the phrase — if you can actually say it — has mystical powers. At Tuesday’s Republican debate, the candidates once more took pains to point out that they would speak the dreaded words that President Obama and Hillary Clinton dare not. “We have a president who is unwilling to utter its name,” Ted Cruz said in his opening statement.

As it turns out, the first time I described the enemy as “radical Islam” was in a column I wrote days after 9/11. I used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in another column later that month. So, having established my credentials, I can honestly say that it gives absolutely nothing in the way of an answer or strategy to deal with terrorist attacks.

It’s not just Republicans who have decided that Obama’s and Clinton’s unwillingness to use this phrase is a sign of weakness and strategic incoherence. There is a cottage industry of writers who boast that they are brave enough to name the enemy.

In fact, Obama has often spoken about the problems of extremism in Islam. His speech last year to the U.N. General Assembly focused significantly on that topic: “Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery. ... It is time for the world especially Muslim communities to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL [the Islamic State].”

In his speech after the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings, Obama again made some of these points, leading late-night comic Seth Meyers to quip: “So he used the words ‘radical,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘terrorism,’ he just didn’t use them in the right order. Which would be a problem if it was a spell and he was Harry Potter, but he’s not, so it isn’t.”

Obama and Clinton have chosen not to describe the enemy as “radical Islam” out of deference to the many Muslim countries and leaders who feel it gives the terrorists legitimacy. President George W. Bush was similarly careful in his rhetoric. For this reason, throughout the Middle East, the Islamic State is called Daesh , an acronym with derogatory connotations.

Conservatives have discovered a newfound love for France after its president declared war following the Paris attacks. They might not have realized that Fran├žois Hollande purposely declared war not on the Islamic State but on Daesh. His foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, explained: “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.’

The best proof that calling radical Islam by its name provides no solutions is that the Republican candidates had none at Tuesday’s debate. After all the huffing and puffing, the most aggressive among them proposed more bombing, no-fly zones and arming the Kurds.

These are modest additions to Obama’s current strategy, each with its own problems. More bombing has proved hard because there are many innocent civilians in Islamic State strongholds. Administration sources tell me that a no-fly zone would require at least 200 U.S. aircraft and would do little to stop the violence, which is mostly conducted on land, with some via helicopters). Arming the Kurds directly would enrage the Iraqi and Turkish governments, as well as many of the Sunni tribes that would have to eventually occupy the lands that are liberated. These are judgment calls, not no-brainers.

Most important, however, fighting this terrorist group is not the same as fighting radical Islam. Strangely, after the GOP candidates boldly and correctly described the enemy as an ideology — which is much broader than one group — they spoke almost entirely about fighting that one group. Even if the Islamic State were defeated tomorrow, would that stop the next lone-wolf jihadist in New York or Paris or London? The San Bernardino killers appear to have been radicalized when the terrorist group barely existed.

In fact, the enemy is radical Islam, an ideology that has spread over the past four decades — for a variety of reasons — and now infects alienated young men and women across the Muslim world. The fight against it must at its core be against the ideology itself. And that can be done only by Muslims — they alone can purge their faith of this extremism. After a slow start, several important efforts are underway, perhaps more than people realize. The West can help by encouraging these forces of reform, allying with them and partnering in efforts to modernize their societies. But that is much less satisfying than hurling invectives, calling for bans on Muslims and advocating carpet-bombing.