September 17, 2014 | Commentary on Terrorism, National Security and Defense, Middle East

Isolating the Islamic State

It’s good to see President Obama move beyond the “we don’t have a strategy yet” phase in the fight against the Islamic State.

On the plus side, he seems to have a good grasp of just how serious a threat the Islamic State poses to the United States and much of the free world. The fact that an attack on the U.S. homeland won’t occur tomorrow is no excuse for inaction today.

Waiting until an attack is imminent is foolhardy in the extreme. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with a relentless foe that has demonstrated an alarming thirst for savagery and a penchant for theatrical murder. When butchers like that send a “message,” you reply with an emphatically lethal message of your own.

Some critics would have us think that escalating military action against the Islamic State is a mistake — that doing so will only rouse our enemies and hand them a valuable propaganda tool. They seem blind to the fact that the Islamic State’s gruesome beheading videos are themselves designed to do just that.

According to Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow James Phillips, who has written extensively about Middle Eastern issues and international terrorism since 1978, the Islamic State’s “slickly packaged jihadist propaganda seeks to stimulate and galvanize members of the movement, spur potential recruits to join in the carnage and incite additional terrorist attacks against the United States.”

Action on our part won’t create that. Inaction will.

We have to remember that ritual killing is also meant to inspire fear and dread. The intended targets — the United States and its allies — are supposed to be cowed. It’s important to show that such ruthless tactics will fail.

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse,” Osama bin Laden once said, “by nature they will like the strong horse.” Wise words from a man whose reign of terror was cut short when he was gunned down by U.S. Special Forces.

So it’s good that the administration understands the need to step up military action. Whether this will move beyond more air power and drone strikes is another matter. The president seems so bent on showing that this isn’t another of “Bush’s wars” that he’s already pre-emptively ruled out a ground combat role.

Even if that was a good strategy, though, he shouldn’t have said it publicly. As Heritage defense expert Steven Bucci later said, “Never tell your enemies what you will not do, Mr. President.” We need to keep them guessing as much as we can.

For now, the president is focused on building a strong and effective coalition against the Islamic State. Does he know, though, how complex that undertaking will be?

It will take some very good diplomatic skills to assemble such a coalition. Given the track record of Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others on his team, it’s not at all clear that they have what it takes to get the job done.

Getting others into a fight, no matter how good and just the cause, can be an incredibly difficult task — especially if they’re being asked to put boots on the ground — and if the president has ruled out ground combat for us, why shouldn’t our friends do the same?

Will Mr. Kerry and company be able to pull it off? We can only hope they will, but the potential for unintended consequences — always a danger when we’re talking about war — is high. If it doesn’t work, what will the administration do?

Mr. Obama has spoken of fielding a “comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.” What we’ve seen so far, however, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Let’s hope that changes — and quickly.

 - Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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Originally appeared in The Washington Times