Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
Peter Bergen: President's serious speech on ISIS met with bloviation from GOP Congress
These lawmakers have yet to authorize fight against ISIS, Bergen says
He says GOP Congress voted against law to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns
In a rare Oval Office address Sunday, President Barack Obama provided a serious, pragmatic account of the war against ISIS. The President’s speech seemed intended to demonstrate that there are no easy answers in the fight against the terror group and that many of the 2016 Republican candidates claiming otherwise are merely bloviating.
The backdrop for the speech, of course, was the terrorist attack inspired by ISIS in San Bernardino, California, as well as the massacres directed by the group in Paris and also the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt by an ISIS affiliate that brought the jet down.
These are, respectively, the most lethal terror attack on American soil since 9/11, the most lethal terrorist attack in the West for more than a decade and the most lethal attack on commercial aviation since 9/11 – and they all came in the space of two months.
San Bernardino shooting
No wonder Americans are on edge. Polling just before the San Bernardino attacks found that 83% of American voters believe a “major” terrorist attack in the United States in the near future is very or somewhat likely.
The President on Sunday night set out to reassure the public and explain his administration’s plans to destroy ISIS and also to answer criticism that he should be “doing more.”
To help set the context for Obama’s ISIS strategy, it’s worth recapping a bit of history from America’s recent wars. When the Taliban – a much less formidable force than ISIS – was gaining new momentum in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, and Obama was relatively new to the presidency, one of the first things he did was to triple the number of troops in Afghanistan from around 30,000 to 90,000. It took 90,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan to “blunt” the momentum of the Taliban.
When al Qaeda in Iraq – the parent organization of ISIS – controlled a good chunk of Iraq in 2006 (but nothing near the population that ISIS does today) in early 2007, President George W. Bush ordered a surge of more than 20,000 U.S. troops into Iraq to supplement the 160,000 already there.
Bush also appointed David Petraeus, one of the most effective U.S. generals since World War II, to lead the fight, and he quietly increased resources going to the Joint Special Operations Command, commanded by Stanley McChrystal, also one of the most effective American generals of the modern era.
Not even the most bellicose of Republicans is advocating anything remotely close to the kind of approach Obama took in Afghanistan in 2009 or that Bush took in Iraq in 2007. The American public is not going to get behind another major ground war in the Muslim world in which thousands of U.S. soldiers would surely die.
Indeed, the President’s strategy against ISIS – increasing U.S. Special Forces in Syria, amping up airstrikes, training local armies, working with allies such as Turkey to tamp down the flow of “foreign fighters” to ISIS – is, as a practical matter, not much different than what the future president is likely to do.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is campaigning in a long-shot bid to be president, is the only Republican candidate who has come up with a proposal for a specific number of U.S. troops on the ground to fight ISIS – 20,000. But as the experience of the Afghan and Iraq wars show, those kinds of numbers do not necessarily translate into victory against a terrorist army such as ISIS.
Other Republican candidates have been less specific than Graham about their strategy for ISIS. “We are gonna bomb the (expletive) out of them” (Donald Trump) and we will “carpet-bomb them into oblivion” (Ted Cruz) do not count as strategies. Since ISIS fighters are living deep inside Iraqi and Syrian cities, such bombing would generate vast civilian casualties.
On Sunday night, Obama properly pointed out the danger of being lured into a ground war against ISIS, which is what the group wants. ISIS believes that the Prophet Mohammed predicted that the Syrian town of Dabiq would be the site of the final battle between the armies of Islam and “Rome,” which will occasion the end of time and the triumph of true Islam.
When American aid worker Peter Kassig was beheaded in November 2014, “Jihadi John,” the masked British terrorist who had appeared in many ISIS videos, said of Kassig, “We bury the first crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the rest of your armies to arrive.” In other words, ISIS wants a Western ground force to invade Syria, as that would confirm the prophecy about Dabiq.
Republicans control both houses of Congress, yet for all their bellicosity they have yet to offer a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force directed at ISIS. For the moment, the war in Syria and Iraq is largely being conducted under the auspices of the authorization that was voted immediately after 9/11 and was directed at al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Almost a decade and a half later, it’s time for Congress to do what it’s supposed to do, which is to authorize the wars that America is fighting, something that Obama demanded in his speech Sunday night. This would have the great advantage of forcing a true debate about the proper scope and cost of these wars and put members of Congress on the record for what they voted for.
Right now they are taking absolutely no responsibility for the war against ISIS, an utter abnegation of what U.S. legislators are supposed to do. (And this includes Democratic members of Congress as well.)
Another area of congressional negligence is allowing terrorists and suspected terrorists who are on the “no fly” list – all 47,000 of them – to continue buying weapons legally, including assault rifles. The President urged Congress to close this loophole, which only last week large numbers of Republicans voted against – even though both Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Peter King, R-New York, introduced legislation to end this loophole. Feinstein and King are to be applauded for pushing this measure forward.
Much of the Republican Party in Congress now backs the position that a terrorist’s right to bear arms outweighs American citizens’ rights not to be killed by a terrorist with a legally purchased weapon. If there was any better demonstration of how the Republican Party is held hostage by the National Rifle Association, it’s hard to think of it.
The President also had some criticism for those on the left and in the Muslim world who are not prepared to say that the Muslim community both in the United States and overseas needs to do considerable self-examination about why the ideological virus of bin Ladenism has seized the imaginations of so many of its young people. Obama pointed out that “an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.”
This denialism was on full display Friday when attorneys for the Farook family – relatives of Syed Rizwan Farook who killed 14 in San Bernardino with his wife, Tashfeen Malik – gave one of the more bizarre press conferences in recent history. Usually, the playbook for this kind of press conference is for the lawyer to say how sorry the family is and how the relatives are cooperating with authorities and then get off the stage.
Instead, the Farook family lawyer, David Chesley, made a meandering case that this was not Islamist terrorism saying, “Right now every headline is saying Muslim and attaching Muslim to it. I think there’s a tendency to take a cookie-cutter version or a paradigm of a terrorist-type event and superimpose it on a situation just because that person is a Muslim, belief or Muslim tradition. And I don’t think we should jump to too many conclusions. In particular because we need to protect the Muslim community and we’re seeing a lot of infringements upon rights that are important to all of us.”
Chesley added, “There was nothing linking this to religion or to terrorist-related activities.”
The fact is that the attack in San Bernardino was obviously terrorism, as the President affirmed Sunday night; the attackers were motivated by an extremist Islamist ideology, and how best to expunge this ideology is surely a pressing question for Muslims the world over. Otherwise we will be dealing with tragedies such as San Bernardino and Paris for many, many years going forward.
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