President Obama and his aides have begun to diminish the threat they see posed by the Islamic State, in sharp contrast to rhetoric last year that depicted the terrorist army as an unprecedented force and a danger to the U.S.
Mr. Obama this month warned against “overinflating their importance.” He said overstating the threat would provide the Islamic State a victory and wrongly suggest that “in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States.”
Senior retired military officers disagree, saying the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, is expanding outside Iraq and Syria basically unchecked by the U.S.
Repeating Mr. Obama’s theme, National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Friday that the Islamic State and other terrorists are not existential threats to U.S. survival.
“Yes, there’s a lot going on,” she said. “Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War.”
Days before Mrs. Rice spoke, Mr. Obama’s top military intelligence officer, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, also used the word “existential.”
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The Defense Intelligence Agency chief said that “although they [the Islamic State] can do us harm, they don’t pose an existential threat to the United States.”
When the White House released its new “National Security Strategy” last week, the document contained a significant word change.
Mr. Obama told the nation in September, in a major speech to set policy for his new war against the Islamic State, that the objective was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Sunni Muslim terrorists.
The White House made that phrase the headline on its Web page, and it became the administration’s repeated rallying cry.
But the White House security strategy dropped the word “destroyed,” saying the objective now is to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State, which conquered territory in Syria and Iraq.
Analysts say “defeat” is a more open-ended outcome that provides more latitude for declaring progress and victory.
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Degrade and defeat
The objective to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State is stated four times in the document. Of its 29 pages, one page is devoted exclusively to the threat of global terrorism.
Mr. Obama last week also chastised Christian critics of the Islamic State and terrorism, warning them not to get on a “high horse.” He reminded them that Christians launched the Crusades 800 to 1,000 years ago, and some Christians defended slavery over a century ago.
The president has refused to say that there is “radical Islam,” instead asserting that violent groups such as the Islamic State have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and analyst at the Family Research Council, said the administration is downplaying the Islamic State at the very moment it is “rapidly growing across the region and spreading into Africa and South Asia.”
“The vast majority of military experts who have weighed into the debate about Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy agree that air power alone, especially limited as it has been to date, will never defeat the extremist dead-enders,” Mr. Maginnis said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said he has a “mixed reaction” to the administration’s strategy paper.
“On the one hand, President Obama and Ambassador Rice are correct to underscore that much about today’s world is favorable, and we need to keep our eye on the long game,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “On the other [hand], ISIS is a serious threat, and we don’t have an effective strategy in Syria. So on the latter issue and country, I think we need to step up our effort substantially.”
In January 2014, as the Islamic State swept into western Iraq, Mr. Obama dismissed it as the “jayvee” team — a junior varsity terrorist group — compared to al Qaeda.
The administration changed its assessment in midsummer when the terrorist army again invaded from Syria, this time into northern Iraq, gobbling up territory, including the major city of Mosul.
“Make no mistake, and this country should not make any mistake on this, nor anyone in Congress — ISIL may not appear to be an imminent threat to the United States, [but] it is a threat to the United States,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “It is a threat, a clear threat to our partners in that area, and it is imminent.”
In July, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, declared: “ISIL is worse than al Qaeda. ISIL is no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”
On the night of Sept. 10, 2014, Mr. Obama addressed the nation in dire terms about the Islamic State’s threat as he announced a new military campaign.
“So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities,” the president said. “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”
He added, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”
Four months later Mr. Obama took a different tone in discussing the Islamic State with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
“What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order,” he said.
“When you look at ISIL, it has no governing strategy. It can talk about setting up the new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work. And so we can’t give them the victory of overinflating what they do, and we can’t make the mistake of being reactive to them. We have to have a precise strategy in terms of how to defeat them,” Mr. Obama said.
A number of retired senior officers disagree.
“As we sit here this morning, in the face of radical Islam, U.S. policymakers refuse to accurately name the movement as radical Islam,” retired Army Gen. John Keane told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “We further choose not to define it, nor explain its ideology and, most critical[ly], we have no comprehensive strategy to stop it or defeat it.”
The U.S. is leading an air campaign against the Islamic State that has conducted around 6,000 strikes. The Pentagon asserts it has halted Islamic State advances in Iraq while it trains new Iraqi brigades to conduct the ground portion of the campaign. Critics say the air-only approach has let the Islamic State solidify gains in Iraq while it has seized new territory in Syria and attracts news terrorist cells in North Africa.