5 myths Obama should have shattered

Will any of Obama's ISIS proposals succeed?
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Will any of Obama's ISIS proposals succeed? 01:22

Story highlights

  • U.S. President Barack Obama delivered Oval Office speech on terrorism on Sunday
  • Aaron Miller: Public deserved some reality therapy about challenge U.S. will face

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller, a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, discusses the Paris attacks in this Wilson Center video. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)On Sunday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office for only the third time in his presidency.

The speech was more a review of ongoing administration efforts to deal with ISIS than a revelation of a major shift in policy. But it was also designed to reassure and unify the nation in the wake of San Bernardino and what is widely viewed as the worst jihadi terrorist attack on the American homeland since 9/11.
Aaron David Miller
The President's speech gave the impression that the administration's approach to handling the ISIS threat can be successful and that ultimately the United States will prevail.
    But whether this is true, the public deserved some reality therapy about the challenge we will face in doing so.
    Here are five myths the President as Educator in Chief should have taken a moment to shatter, but did not:

    1. There's a comprehensive fix to this problem

    Actually, there isn't. The President has now shifted his goal from ultimately degrading and defeating ISIS to simply destroying it. Yet 14 years after 9/11, a pretty compelling case can be made that quite the opposite is happening, and that the jihadis are thriving.
    The President referred to killing Osama bin Laden and dismantling al Qaeda. But what he failed to mention is the context within which the jihadi menace is taking place.
    The Middle East is melting down: Bad or no governance; Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions; a vicious, medieval Islamic ideology; and large numbers of aggrieved Muslims, particularly in Europe and the Arab world. All these have combined to create a perfect storm of jihadi violence that is reaching across much of the globe.
    Gains against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are being offset as the group jumps borders and spreads to Sinai and Libya, where deadly affiliates have been spawned.
    Fortunately, the President avoided any World War II comparisons. The battle against jihadi terror -- like that conflict-- is global. But it certainly won't be over six years from now.

    2. This terror has nothing to do with Islam

    Don't believe it. Of the five deadliest terror groups in the world, all are Muslim. Indeed, other than the Muslim jihadis, there are really no other religious extremists that are inspiring or directing their followers to kill innocents across borders and certainly not with such bloody frequency.
    Jihadi terror may have nothing to do with the way most Muslims envision or practice their religion. But groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda use Islamic religious texts and precepts to justify and validate their actions, governance and philosophy of terror against Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
    Indeed, as Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid has written, Islam -- however perverted the interpretation being put forward by extremists -- matters a great deal in shaping the jihadis' logic for killing and their willingness to die.

    3. The United States is just like Europe

    It isn't. And that's a good thing. The San Bernardino attack demonstrates that the United States has a growing homegrown jihadi problem of Muslims that are either self-radicalized or who are being inspired by international jihadi groups. Indeed, the FBI has 900 open investigations -- the majority ISIS related -- with more terrorism arrests in 2015 than any year since 2001. And more worrisome, the San Bernardino shooters were not on the FBI's radar screen.
    But two oceans (our liquid assets, so to speak), much better border controls and a more integrated and assimilated American Muslim community give the United State advantages that Europe lacks.
    An estimated 6,000 European Muslims are reportedly fighting alongside ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria. That doesn't mean we can't or won't be attacked again. But we're in a better position to deal with trying to preempt and contain the jihadi problem than the Europeans, Turks or the Arabs.
    Indeed, at least for now, America's problem isn't primarily jihadi violence, but mass shootings generally -- in 209 of 336 days this year in the United States, at least one shooting left four or more injured or dead.

    4. The international community can handle the problem

    Not so fast. President Obama claims 65 nations are engaged in the fight against ISIS. Yet most of these offer only symbolic and political support.
    Of the 8,000 or more airstrikes against ISIS targets, the U.S. accounts for more than 6,000. The Saudis care more about military operations in Yemen; the Turks are more engaged in fighting the Kurds; and the Russians have a variety of goals in Syria, primarily shoring up Bashar al-Assad's regime.
    Neither the French, British nor NATO seem interested in putting boots on the ground in Syria to fight ISIS. And the United States, while increasing its special forces in Syria and Iraq, is reluctant to deploy significant ground forces or create safe havens or no-fly zones.
    But it's not at all clear that local forces -- Kurds, Iraqi Sunnis or Shia -- can mount operations to take back major ISIS controlled terrain. Meanwhile, ISIS has jumped borders, expanding into Yemen, Sinai and Libya, making the task all the harder.

    5. Boots on the ground could finish ISIS

    It actually might in Syria and Iraq. To defeat ISIS, you need to destroy its caliphate and show that in fact it has failed and has nothing to govern. But indigenous forces don't have the power to make this happen, while foreign forces lack the will and the desire to do so.
    Plus, even if you could assemble an effective military coalition led by the United States, you'd still need to address the Day After challenge, namely, who or what will govern Syria and Iraq wisely?
    Who will fix the underlying Sunni grievances on which ISIS feeds? And who will counter Iran's influence in both places, secure the peace and spend the hundreds of billions required to rebuild Syria and repatriate, compensate and rehabilitate millions of refugees and the internally displaced?
    Until those questions are answered, deploying large numbers of ground forces is an idea in search of a strategy.
    Instead, the issue for the administration is how to intensify the current approach -- more airstrikes, more special forces, more coordination and focusing on cutting off ISIS finances. After all, in the several months it took the United States to push al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States conducted as many airstrikes as it has in the past 16 months in Iraq and Syria.
    The bottom line is that in the past just over a month, ISIS or its affiliates have pulled off major attacks against Russia, France and likely inspired one in the United States.
    This war against radical jihadis -- and it is a war -- will be a long and bloody one, one that lasts longer than the decade-plus the United States has been in Afghanistan or Iraq. And there may not be any final victories, something the American public needs to be made aware of, without exaggerating the threat or scaring us to death.
    On Sunday night, the President missed an opportunity to do just that.