While Trump Talks, Obama Routs Islamic State

The Republican huffs and puffs while the man he wants to succeed is actually killing the terrorists.

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama waits backstage before participating in a panel discussion in Atlanta, Georgia, March 29 (White House/Pete Souza)

While Donald Trump was hectoring the man he hopes to succeed next year for supposedly falling short in the fight against Islamic terrorism, President Barack Obama reminded Americans on Tuesday that his administration is gradually eradicating the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It’s unclear to what extent the group was involved in the shooting at a Florida gay nightclub this weekend that killed nearly fifty people. It rather looks like the shooter, Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan descent, was motivated by anti-gay bigotry more than anything else and only professed his allegiance to the Islamic State at the last minute.

Whatever the Islamic State’s role, Obama is determined to root it out. But — and this is what separates him from many Republicans, including Trump — he is not losing his mind and pretending that a ragtag band of jihadists in the desert of the Middle East poses an existential threat to the United States.

“On defense”

The president listed a series of steps he’s taken to rout the Islamists. There are now more American soldiers assisting local forces in Iraq and Syria to battle Islamic State militants, he said. American and European jets carry out airstrikes daily, from bases in the region as well as from the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

So far there have been 13,000 strikes while 120 Islamic State leaders have been killed. “This campaign at this stage is firing on all cylinders,” Obama said.

The group’s territory has shrunk. Iraqi government forces are on the verge of retaking Fallujah and are tightening the noose around Mosul, according to the president: the largest city under Islamic State control.

“ISIL is on defense,” he said, using a different acronym for the organization. “And it’s now been a full year since ISIL has been able to mount a major successful offensive operation in either Syria or Iraq.”

The American-led coalition has also targeted oil facilities and supply lines to cut the Islamic State’s income and effectively cut off the group from the international financial system.

This may not be as dramatic as military strikes, Obama admitted, “but it is critically important. Fighters are paid less. Some Islamic State leaders have been caught stealing cash and gold. “Once again, ISIL’s true nature has been revealed,” he said: “These are not religious warriors, they are thugs and they are thieves.”

No clash of civilizations

Could America do more? Sure. It could ratchet up airstrikes. It could deploy ground forces to help the Iraqis and Kurds. It could follow Senator Ted Cruz’ ridiculous advice and “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State out of existence, even if this means killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process.

The question is not what can be done. The question is what should be done?

The president thinks the current level of military involvement and intensity is just about right. As Jeffrey Goldberg, who spoke with him about this issue at length, writes in The Atlantic today, Obama understands (or believes, depending on your point of view) that extremism in the Islamic world has more to do with the Islamic world than it has with America.

He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control. At its best, this belief keeps him from rushing into disasters not of America’s making; at its worst, it keeps him from taking steps that stand a chance of making things better.

I’ve similarly argued that where Republicans see an epic struggle between good and evil, Obama sees a problem to manage.

Goldberg puts it better: Trump and many Republicans, he writes, believe “that two civilizations are in conflict. Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage in this fight between Muslim modernizers and Muslim fundamentalists.”

If he’s right, then inserting America into that fight may inadvertently help the fanatics more than it does the modernizers.

Name games

This also helps explain Obama’s reluctance to blame “radical Islam” for attacks like the one in Orlando this weekend.

Some Republicans are hypersensitive about Obama’s choice of words, reading into his aversion to the term a refusal to face up the real problem.

The Democrat disagrees. “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away,” he said.

So if someone seriously thinks that we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.

It’s not hard to imagine which “someone” he had in mind.

It’s the fanatics of the Islamic State who want a war between Islam and the West. The West isn’t interested.

Let’s not “fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion,” Obama warned. “Then we’re doing the terrorists’ work for them.”