At first, the president offered what seemed to be an unambiguous goal. “The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it is no longer a threat,” he said…

But when ABC News Radio White House correspondent Ann Compton today asked the president to clarify whether the United States now wants ISIS destroyed, the president seemed to significantly backtrack.

“Our objective is to make sure they aren’t an ongoing threat to the region,” he said.

Then, in response to another question, he seemed to backtrack even further: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

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A harsher, but still accurate, description is that Obama strategy boils down to nudging Iraqis and Syrians to decide, on their own, to take the hard but necessary steps to solve this on their own. But since this depends so much on local actors cooperating — and a seemingly magical end to the Syrian civil war — there’s nothing like a guarantee that it’ll succeed.

In either reading, this is a reasonable strategy. It is controversial, and there’s nothing that ensures it’ll work, but it’s something. So that’s why it’s so problematic to see Obama’s comments this week suggesting that the US has a very different, much more aggressive strategy of seeking to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Wednesday that the US will follow ISIS “to the gates of Hell” did not help.

This suggests that the administration has two contradictory strategic approaches — that American efforts should be aimed at helping Syrians and Iraqis solve this, but also that the US should immediately and unilaterally degrade the ISIS threat — that can work at cross-purposes. The administration seems to think the latter serves the former, but there’s a risk that the US is sending mixed messages to the Iraqis and Syrians. The more America talks about wanting to destroy ISIS, the more Iraqis and Syrians think the US might be planning to take the military and political lead.

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“ISIL poses a direct and significant threat to us” and “has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the United States,” [National Counterterror Center director Matthew] Olsen said, speaking at an event hosted by the Brookings Institute. But he said the group is not as capable of carrying out a large-scale attack as al Qaeda was before 9/11, Olsen said…

Around 100 Americans have traveled to fight with ISIS, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has said while even more have traveled to Syria from Europe. Olsen estimated 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight against Assad’s regime in the last three years…

The threat exists of a lone wolf, radicalized by ISIS, carrying out an attack on his or her own in the U.S., Olsen said. Such an attack would be “limited” in scope and “smaller scale” than the scale of the 9/11 attacks launched by al Qaeda.

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Many Christians seem befuddled when responding to atrocities like beheadings and systematic, deadly persecution — conflicted between the desire to protect the innocent and “do justice” yet feeling as if that somehow violates commands like “turn the other cheek.” But we are not commanded to make sure that others turn their cheeks. Indeed, compelling helplessness and vulnerability is a grave affront to a nation’s citizens. Pacifism — which is nothing more than compelled helplessness — is thus the worst possible response to attack, not just tactically and strategically stupid in secular terms but also a direct abdication of a sacred responsibility.

So, with a clear conscience and firm conviction, our nation’s Christian citizens can and should send President Obama a clear message: ISIS should not be managed. It has to be crushed.

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“In no way have I said that we shouldn’t do anything about ISIS. In fact, I have said that I would call a joint session of Congress if I was president,” [Sen. Rand] Paul told Sean Hannity on his radio show Wednesday. “I would bring Congress back from the recess and would tell them why ISIS is a threat and I would ask for the legislative permission that goes with the Constitution in order to take care of them militarily.”

In the interview, Paul said he believes Congressional approval is “appropriate” and could pass overwhelmingly. Paul also said Iran, Syria, and Turkey be “enjoined” in fighting ISIS because they have the ability, means, and incentive to do so.

“Right now, the two allies that have the same goal would be Iran and Syria, to wipe out ISIS. They also have the means and the ability and they also have the incentive to do so because Assad’s clinging for power and clinging for life there,” Paul said. “So I also think that Turks really should be enjoined in this. And I do think that there can be a role for America. But I would rather see the president come to a joint session of Congress, asks for permission, and if he gets it, I still would like to see the ground troops and the battles being fought by those who live there. We can give both technological as well as air support. That could be the decisive factor in this.”

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The same has also always been true of the ideological/doctrinal divide between Sunni and Shiite jihadists. For example, al-Qaeda has had cooperative and operational relations with Iran since the early 1990s. Iran collaborated with al-Qaeda in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack that killed 19 U.S. airmen; probably in the 9/11 attacks; certainly in the aftermath of 9/11; and in the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies. Al-Qaeda would not be what it is today without state sponsorship, particularly from Iran. The Islamic State might not exist at all.

The point is that al-Qaeda has never been anything close to the totality of the jihadist threat. Nor, now, is the Islamic State. The challenge has always been Islamic supremacism: the ideology, the jihadists that are the point of the spear, and the state sponsors that enable jihadists to project power. The challenge cannot be met effectively by focusing on one element to the exclusion of others.

Have a look, for instance, at Bill Roggio’s report today (also in the Long War Journal): In helping Iraqi forces wrest Amerli from the Islamic State, the U.S. Air Force colluded with Iran-backed Shiite terrorist groups, including the League of the Righteous, responsible for the killing of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. The switch in dominion over territory from anti-American Sunni jihadists to anti-American Shiite jihadists is a setback for the Islamic State, but it does not advance American national security. In fact, it would become a real negative for American national security if it contributed to a revival of the dangerous fantasy that Iran has a helpful, “stabilizing” role to play in rolling back the terrorist threat — a fantasy to which the Obama administration is far from unique in subscribing.

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“There is a mystical belief that, if you just establish the caliphate in the right way, Muslims will come to you and everything will fall into place,” says Fred Donner, a historian of early Islam at the University of Chicago. And it is precisely this promise of inexorable, righteous expansion that has drawn recruits from all over the globe—not just nearby, war-ravaged nations, but England and Australia and France, too. Together, they have formed the most monstrous squad of historical reenactors of all time…

So how do we fight ISIS? Giving Baghdadi more time as caliph might only make him more plausible in the role and allow him to draw more fighters to his state. If that is true, one concerned Western scholar told me, we would be wise to kill him fast. Right now only an infinitesimal number of Muslims have sworn fealty to him. The biggest danger is letting that number grow. Once he becomes a popular figure instead of a divisive one, his death will have spillover effects. “Killing the religious leader of even a small minority of Muslims is not good propaganda,” says Cole Bunzel.

But a massive invasion by the United States would have equally deplorable effects, because it would instantly convert Baghdadi’s squalid army into the world’s premier terrorist organization. A balanced and effective approach, then, would be to kill him as fast as possible and to use Kurdish and Shia proxies to arrest his state’s expansion. By confining U.S. action to surgical raids and proxy war, we might avoid accidentally anointing him or his successor Grand Poobah of the Mujahedin.

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My reading of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we nearly got there in Iraq until President Obama abandoned efforts to secure a lasting U.S. troop presence and pulled out all troops in 2011. A residual U.S. troops presence would not have solved Iraq’s political problems but would have given us leverage for continued bargaining and almost certainly would have blunted IS’s growth and prevented the current emergency. The failings of 2003 to 2007 were failings of planning, management, oversight, and coordination, which the United States painfully and slowly improved at the cost of thousands of lives.

In other words, we tried the right thing, but the United States is far less capable of doing the right thing than is widely appreciated — not because our military isn’t capable, but because it isn’t useful for the kinds of things we need to accomplish. For that, we need different tools — the tools of reconstruction, stabilization, coercion, political pressure, diplomacy, the whole package. This is an emotionally unsatisfying explanation because it is complicated and doesn’t come wrapped in a tidy Tweetable moralistic bow (like “Bush lied, people died!” or “nation building is hubris!”).

But it is true. If you want to see the next four presidential administrations lob bombs at Iraq and Mali and Somalia and Pakistan with no end in sight, then our military is well equipped to do the job, and we will live in a world of forever war. If you want a just and lasting peace among nations, our military cannot build it alone. Some sort of broader, messy, and complicated intervention — by the United States, the U.N., NATO, the Arab League, the African Union, someone — will have to be part of it. “Not meddling” isn’t a foreign policy.

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Via the Corner.

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