After the horrifying massacre in Nice last night we are at risk of misdirecting our anger. The perpetrator seems to be another in the line of those inspired by ISIS. ISIS must be destroyed.
ISIS grew in Iraq in the vacuum that followed our withdrawal. Our withdrawal is attributable directly to the deepest wishes of President Obama. He was proud of it. It was nevertheless a mistake for which he and his Secretary of State and others bear direct responsibility.
Obama also holds a sophisticated attitude toward the phenomenon of ISIS that has fostered our lax response to its depredations. Perhaps the most dispiriting element of President Obama’s 2015 Vox interview with Matthew Yglesias was Obama’s likening of terrorism to a problem of domestic law enforcement. Obama drew an analogy between terrorism and crime control. We need to keep the lid on and do our best to reduce it. But we’re not in a war where the enemy is recognized or the object is victory. Terrorism is one of those things we have to learn to live with.
Where did that come from?
Obama’s thinking echoes that of former senior CIA officer Paul Pillar in the ill-timed book on terrorism that he published just before 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s Middle East foreign policy generally echoes Pillar’s thinking, including its patent hostility to Israel and wishful thinking about Iran. (I have wondered whether Pillar’s thinking might not represent an unconnected dot in Michael Doran’s tour de force on Obama’s secret Iran strategy.)
Shortly before 9/11 Pillar took a leave from the CIA to write Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Gabriel Schoenfeld took a detailed look at the book in the Commentary essay “Could September 11 have been averted?” Schoenfeld’s subsequent exchange with Pillar and others in Commentary’s letters to the editor is accessible online here.
In the book Pillar argued most famously that counterterrorism efforts were properly to be likened, not to a “war,” but rather to “the effort by public-health authorities to control communicable diseases” or the effort to improve “highway safety,” where regulators “can reduce deaths and injuries somewhat” by taking action on a variety of fronts but without any false idea of “defeating” the problem. Although Schoenfeld found the book “both authoritative and exceedingly well-informed,” he observed in the light of September 11 that the book’s conclusions “seemed not just wide of the mark but almost risible.”
As with Pillar, so with Obama. Obama’s attitude toward the ISIS phenomenon is one of high-minded complacency. With his characteristically bad timing, he fatuously disparaged ISIS as the junior varsity just as they began their resurgence in Iraq. This PolitiFact column usefully explicates Obama’s comment with background and links while finding the White House guilty of lying about it.
Only this past March Obama put it this way: “Groups like ISIL can’t destroy us, they can’t defeat us. They don’t produce anything. They’re not an existential threat to us. They are vicious killers and murderers who perverted one of the world’s great religions. And their primary power, in addition to killing innocent lives, is to strike fear in our societies, to disrupt our societies, so that the effect cascades from an explosion or an attack by a semi-automatic rifle.”
As Paul suggests, it seems to me that this is the attitude reflected in the policy that leaves us where we are today.