Capstones: Convincing the Commander-in-Chief

By Alan W. Dowd, 12.1.15

A day after the president declared ISIS “contained,” the terror superpower launched a series of attacks across Paris, killing 130 people. The Paris siege followed the ISIS bombing of a Beirut market and takedown of a Russian airliner over the Sinai. In short, ISIS is anything but contained by the president’s stand-off strategy in Iraq and Syria. Where do we go from here?


With 13 months remaining in his term, the commander-in-chief must come to grips with the harsh reality that America is at war. He may not like the term “war on terror,” he may want to turn the page on a decade of war, he may believe saying something long enough and loud enough will make it so. But war was forced upon America on September 11, 2001. It did not end when the Taliban was toppled in 2001. It did not end when President Bush left office in 2009. It did not end when bin Laden was killed in 2011. It did not end when President Obama promised that “the tide of war is receding” in 2012.

As French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy counseled days after his country’s 9/11, “Dare to utter the terrible word ‘war’…Each of us, this time, is a target, a front line…The idea is heartbreaking and appalling, but it is a fact that we must face.”

Facts are stubborn things. The assault on Paris was the bloodiest attack in France since World War II. As French President Francois Hollande explained, without nuance or equivocation, “France is at war.” Noting that the attack was carried out by “an army” with “financial resources” and “territory,” Hollande declared that his country is “at war against terrorism.”

As if to airbrush away all the unpleasantness of the Bush era, that phrase was expunged by the Obama administration as it entered office. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.

To be sure, the term “war on terrorism” is imperfect. We cannot defeat terrorism, critics counter, because it is a tactic or a method. Hence, they argue that a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst. Yet the civilized world has defeated or otherwise marginalized certain tactics and methods. Historian John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and genocide. Moreover, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded that “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.”

And so France’s 9/11 brings us full circle: We are still at war with a constellation of states and stateless groups that seek, by murdering innocents, maiming civilization and terrorizing those who oppose their death creed, to overturn the liberal global order established after World War II.

Like yesterday’s enemies—Nazis, kamikazes, Stalinists—today’s enemy has a name and an ideology fueling its dark vision. “Do not play with words…call the enemy by his true name…It is not a dispersed collection of ‘lone wolves’ or ‘lunatics,’” Levy concludes. “These men should rightfully be labelled fascists. Better: fascislamists.”

Their tortured version of Islam—not unlike the appeal of Leninism in the century past—transcends race, ethnicity, nationality and geography. It must be discredited in the arena of ideas and utterly defeated on the field of battle. Islam’s leaders have a crucial role to play. An ancient faith that’s honored on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court as a source of reason, Islam must find a way to spark a reformation. But don’t take my word for it. In early 2015, long before the Paris attacks, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited an ancient center of Islamic learning and spoke directly to Islam’s leading scholars: “It’s inconceivable,” he said, that Islam “has become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world…We are in need of a religious revolution.”


No matter what ISIS, al Qaeda and their brethren say—no matter what the confused peoples of the postmodern West have been taughtAmerica is not at war with Islam. After all, in the past quarter-century, the United States has defended Muslim Saudi Arabia, freed Muslim Kuwait, rescued Muslim Kurdistan, fed Muslim Somalia, ended the bludgeoning of Muslim Bosnia, protected Muslim Kosovo, and liberated Muslim Afghanistan, Muslim Iraq and Muslim Libya from horrific regimes.

American troops have bled and died with Kurds, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Iraqis and Afghans. America’s military has shielded Sunnis from Shiites and Shiites from Sunnis, rushed aid to Muslim Indonesia and Muslim Pakistan after natural disasters of biblical proportion, and cleared a pathway to modernity for a region intent on looking backwards. If this record doesn’t convince moderate Muslims that the U.S. is not on a crusade against Islam, then nothing will.

If you doubt that the fight against ISIS is about protecting America and its interests, consider:

  • Defense Secretary Ashton Carter calls ISIS “the most immediate threat to U.S. national interests.” Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta describes ISIS as “a clear and present danger.” The FBI has 900 ISIS-related investigations underway in all 50 states. “Unless they are stamped out,” warns John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, “they’ll come here.”
  • ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls on his followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.” He controls 34,000 square-miles of territory (an area the size of Indiana); commands an army of 30,000 troops, with waves of fresh recruits arriving daily from outside the warzone; reigns over a population of 2 million; and has a steady stream of oil revenue.
  • According to The New York Times, ISIS has “manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells” and is aggressively pursuing a chemical weapons capability. Britain warns that “non-state actors” like ISIS “are now acquiring ballistic missile technology.”

Halfhearted military operations will not win this war—something made clear by the president’s approach. Fifteen months into the anti-ISIS air campaign, 75 percent of warplanes are returning to base without releasing their weapons. The average number of strike sorties per day against ISIS is 11, with an average of 43 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of the Iraq War was 596, with 1,039 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of Afghanistan was 86, with 230 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day during the Kosovo War was 183, with 364 weapons releases per day.

Contrary to the president’s straw-man argument about launching another ground war in the Middle East, the model for taking apart ISIS is the initial phase of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001 and the Kosovo War of 1999: The former relied on U.S. forward air controllers on the ground guiding ordnance onto enemy targets. The latter featured airstrikes across the enemy’s entire strategic depth. Both coordinated closely with indigenous forces on the ground.

The president doesn’t deserve all the blame for this halfhearted response to ISIS. Where is Congress? It has been talking about passing an authorization for military force for a year, and still the troops and the nation wait. That is an abdication of Congress’s co-equal wartime responsibilities.

Perhaps this should be expected. After all, in a time of war, Congress and the White House have slashed defense spending from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. The Army’s active-duty endstrength has been guillotined from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 soldiers, to 490,000 today, to 450,000 by 2018. The Marine Corps’ endstrength will fall to 182,000 by 2017 (from 202,000). Pressed by sequestration, the Air Force announced plans last year to eliminate 500 planes. At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Even the post-Cold War Navy of the 1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Combatant commanders need 450 ships.

Henry Kissinger urges “a strategy-driven budget, not a budget-driven strategy.” A strategy-driven defense budget, by definition, would put strategy first, define America’s interests, and build a military to promote and protect those interests. A budget-driven strategy, on the other hand, puts budget and spending priorities ahead of national-security needs. As we are seeing in the wake of sequestration, a budget-driven strategy cuts indiscriminately, limits options and weakens the military.

“We have to energize every element of national power,” says Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former DIA director, “to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.” In light of the actions and inaction detailed above, no one can seriously say the United States is energizing every element of national power to wage what President Hollande calls “the war on terrorism.”

With 56 percent of Americans saying counterterror operations in Afghanistan are not worth the costs, 74 percent saying the U.S. should focus on problems here at home and 52 percent saying the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (up from 30 percent in 2002), it is clear the American people have tired of the post-9/11 burden. If nothing else, President Obama deserves credit for sensing this world-weariness and tapping into it. But as Secretary of State John Kerry observes, “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

This all calls to mind the political challenge at the outset of the Cold War. Consider the words of NSC-68, which provided a roadmap for fighting Soviet communism. NSC-68 argued that success “hangs ultimately on recognition by this government, the American people and all free peoples that the Cold War is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake”; that America must summon the patience for a long conflict with the “new fanatic faith” of communism; and that waging and winning the Cold War would require “the tenacity to persevere until our national objectives have been attained.”

It is the duty of policymakers to deliver that sort of message—repeatedly—in order to sustain a critical mass of support for the long war against terrorism. The president has not done that. For seven years—with shortsighted troop withdrawals, massive defense cuts, soothing promises that “the tide of war is receding,” up-is-down reports that ISIS has been “contained” and al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat”—he  has done the very opposite.

The Bush Administration tried to prepare the American people for what the U.S. military calls the long war. Days after 9/11, President Bush braced America for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen,” asking for “patience in what will be a long struggle.” In 2006, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace spoke in terms of a global counter-insurgency lasting “30 years.” If we accept that timeline, we are only halfway through the war on terror. President Hollande, who called the Paris massacres “acts of war committed on our soil,” understands this. President Obama, who called the Paris massacres a “setback,” still seems unconvinced.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.