As the President continues to struggle with a strategy regarding what we should do about ISIS, one of the key questions being batted around is how to define the precise level of threat which ISIS poses to the United States. It’s a valid question, actually, so it was with interest that I followed a link on this subject to an opinion piece by CNN’s national security analyst, Peter Bergen. The title gives a fairly solid summary of the contents. ISIS threat to U.S. mostly hype.
ISIS has Americans worried. Two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent Pew Research poll said they consider the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to be a “major threat” to this country. But are such fears really justified?
Despite the impression you may have had from listening to U.S. officials in recent weeks, the answer is probably not really.
For a start, U.S. officials have been inflating the numbers of Americans fighting for ISIS, which has muddied the issue for the public.
As I implied above, there is a valid discussion to be had about the precise level of threat posed by ISIS in broad strokes. Some have argued that, while ISIS certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a large number of Americans killed, they are fairly tied up at the moment with their efforts to take and hold territory in their prospective caliphate. How many people can they spare to attack the American homeland? But such arguments become rather moot when the black masked maniacs begin releasing videos of their members chopping off the heads of Americans. That makes the threat direct, immediate and deserving of a vigorous response. But let’s get back to the CNN article.
You’ll note that Bergen (bio) begins his piece by saying For a start, when talking about inaccurate depictions of the number of American citizens fighting with the terrorists. This would seem to imply that there are more reasons to follow which demonstrate why ISIS is more hype than harbinger of doom. But if you read the entire article, there are no other reasons offered. Half of the piece talks about various estimates of Americans fighting for the terrorists and the rest is about why war would be a bad idea.
Frankly, I think Bergen needed a few more bullet points in his presentation. If he wants to say that the number of American ISIS fighters is more like a dozen, that’s fine. Call it six. That doesn’t really matter to me, beyond the understandable desire to find those six people in particular and erase them. But achieving that laudable goal doesn’t do much in terms of eliminating the threat of ISIS in its entirety. So where was the rest of Bergen’s analysis?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Since this story first erupted, Peter has been singing a fairly consistent tune, no matter how many stories of brutality and horror make it to cable news channels. On August 20th, he described the situation as still “only a potential threat” to the US. And he clearly hasn’t thought much of any serious military response to ISIS, suggesting strongly – if not saying outright – only two days later that maybe we should just pay the terrorists the ransoms they demand.
If there’s not an escape or a successful rescue effort, Western governments whose citizens are held by ISIS have only the options of either a negotiation involving ransom or the real possibility that their hostages may be executed.
This is the sobering choice that faces President Barack Obama and his national security advisers. It’s not much of a choice at all.
Leaving aside the emotional appeal of paying up and hopefully saving the lives of loved ones, this world view doesn’t seem to have worked well so far. Several countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have paid millions of dollars to these terrorists. And rather than calming them down and prompting more civil behavior, the payments have served only to embolden them and finance their illegal arms purchases.
Coming from this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that Bergen would continue to claim ISIS isn’t much of a threat. But reality is intruding quickly and seems to beg to differ.