Paul Pillar

ISIS and the Take-Out Myth

The perceptions and the politics in the United States regarding the use of military force against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS are now clear and well-established. The issue has become a classic case of those without the responsibilities of office seizing on a matter of public fear and concern and lambasting those with such responsibilities for not doing more, with the lambasters enjoying the luxury of not having to develop specific and well-thought-out measures and not having to consider the costs, risks, effectiveness, and consequences of any such measures.

Thus we hear the Republican presidential candidates making a huge deal of what they describe as a grievous threat from ISIS and using bombastic language to let us believe that most of them would make quicker and more extensive use of military force against this group than is the supposedly reticent and weak-kneed incumbent in the White House. But despite the volume and intensity of such rhetoric we hear very little about exactly how they would use force differently and even less about how any different measures should be expected to work. Even systematic efforts to catalog what candidates have said on the subject yield mostly spotty and vaguely phrased results.

The public mood being exploited is clear enough. A recent Monmouth University poll showed 78% of respondents believing ISIS to be “a major threat to U.S. security” and 68% saying that the U.S. Government is “not doing enough to defeat ISIS.” When asked whether ISIS can be stopped without U.S. troops, can be stopped only with U.S. troops, or cannot be stopped, a plurality (47%) said only with U.S. troops.

President Obama has felt it necessary to join in some of the public chorus on this topic. After a televised address from the Oval Office did not receive good enough reviews, the president a week later spoke from the Pentagon about the military side of anti-ISIS efforts, citing numbers of bombing sorties as if that were a good gauge of making progress on counterterrorism. Then a couple of days later he made another publicly covered appearance, with additional talk about the ISIS problem, at the National Counterterrorism Center.

When we see a strong association between politicians' rhetoric and a pattern of public concern reflected in opinion polls, we need to be careful about what is cause and what is effect. Politicians exploit public beliefs, but segments of the public form many of their beliefs based on cues they get from political leaders whom they most support and political parties with which they most identify. An event such a high-profile terrorist incident can trigger a shift in mood, but then the political rhetoric and exploitation have a snowball effect. If political leaders of both parties had been making public statements much more consistent with the actual interests of the nation and what threatens those interests most severely, poll results on questions about ISIS would have been significantly different.

Perhaps the single formulation in the presidential candidates' rhetoric on this subject that has gotten most attention is Ted Cruz's recommendation to use “carpet bombing.” As Major General Robert Scales, a military historian and former commandant of the Army War College, comments, carpet bombing “is just another one of those phrases that people with no military experience throw around.” When Cruz is pressed on the subject, it becomes clear he does not know what he is talking about in his use of the terminology and doesn't actually have a plan for use of air power that looks different from what the current administration is doing.

Max Boot, in a piece that gives Cruz far too much credit for having a serious proposal for use of air power rather than merely using carpet bombing as a term that sounds tough, gives good reasons why simply bombing ISIS will not defeat it. Boot, who is a serious analyst in his own right but is identified in this article as a foreign policy adviser to Marco Rubio, ends up with a vaguely stated conclusion that U.S. ground troops will have to be sent against ISIS. Rubio's own statements on this subject also have been vague, with some references to a need for using more special operations forces.

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