As President Obama prepares for a speech in which he will describe his strategy for countering the group commonly known as ISIS, officials in his administration are preparing public expectations by saying the effort against ISIS may take three years to “complete.” Maybe the preparation is intended to dampen anticipation of rapid results, but it probably also is designed to cushion any sticker-shock reaction from people who will hear in the speech an effort that is larger and longer than they may have had in mind. Three years may sound like a lot, but consider that this week marks the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attack that stimulated a priority-monopolizing, invasion-facilitating, civil-liberties-revising “war on terror” which, although that latter term isn't used as routinely as it once was, never has received a certificate of completion.
Even without a spectacular terrorist attack, or any attack, on the U.S. homeland by the feared group du jour, much of the public discourse in the United States today about ISIS closely resembles the public discourse more than a decade ago about al-Qaeda. Of course, part of what we are hearing is a continued reaction to 9/11, even though ISIS had nothing to do with that attack. Firm action against ISIS has already become equated in the public mind with prevention of a future big terrorist attack in the United States, in a way that never would have occurred had there not been a 9/11.
Expectations about the duration of counterterrorist efforts against the most feared group of the day are one respect in which the public mood and discourse of today resemble what prevailed a dozen years ago. Three years probably seemed like a rather long time to most Americans back then, and thirteen years was probably outside the frame of reference of almost the entire public. Yet today there is still around not only plenty of radical Sunni terrorism but also the very group, al-Qaeda, that was the prime target of counterterrorism after 9/11. Just three years ago the White House released a national strategy on counterterrorism that was almost entirely about al-Qaeda and its affiliates. How many Americans listening to the president this week anticipate that a decade from now ISIS will still be a major policy concern of the United States? Probably almost none, and any who thought about it probably would consider such persistence, if it should occur, a mark of unsuccessful counterterrorist policies.
A political correctness that pervaded discussions of counterterrorism and al-Qaeda a decade or more ago pervades discussions today about ISIS. There was back then a requirement to speak only of defeating or destroying the group that represented the terrorism problem, or maybe even terrorism in general, and not to speak of just containing or degrading it. Woe to those (myself included, based on pre-9/11 writings) who pointed out that terrorism is an age-old tactic that can be managed with varying degrees of success but never eliminated. Today al-Qaeda, let alone terrorism in general or even the Sunni variants of it, has not been destroyed. Given the expansion and metastasis of it into groups such as ISIS, it would be hard even to say it has been defeated. Terrorism is better managed than it was 13 years ago, however, thanks in large part to enhanced defensive security measures, and the core al-Qaeda group has been significantly degraded and contained. The lessons of all of this seem to be lost on those today who insist on a whatever-it-takes mission of destroying ISIS.
The constraints imposed by the current political correctness regarding ISIS dovetail in an unfortunate way with some of the political vulnerabilities of the Obama administration. The administration probably seeks, for example, to avoid any posture that could be disparaged as “leading from behind,” which also would be out of tune with the current militant mood music about destroying ISIS quickly and forcefully. Leading from behind would in some respects, however, be the most effective U.S. approach toward countering ISIS in the Middle East, given how success in any such effort will depend heavily on whether Arab publics and governments, including Sunni ones in particular, are seen to be out front in opposing the group.
The administration will have to balance the demands of the current political zeitgeist against whatever it may privately consider to be the best way to protect and advance U.S. interests in the Middle East in the face of the ISIS phenomenon. Wherever it strikes that balance will unavoidably fail to satisfy entirely either of these opposing sets of criteria.