On Sept. 10, President Obama delivered a speech to a war-weary nation about his strategy to “degrade and destroy” the terrorist group ISIS, otherwise known as the Islamic State.
This radical organization has recently conquered broad stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria, committing acts of vicious barbarism in their wake. ISIS is unashamed of its mass killings, destruction of Muslim holy sites, or its beheadings of Westerners, and all of these atrocities have filmed for the world to witness.
In the midst of these disturbing events, President Obama stood between two flags: that of the United States, and that of its president. The flag of America’s chief executive shows an eagle with an olive branch in one claw symbolizing peace, and a cluster of arrows in the other which symbolizes war. As the President spoke of an effort to confront ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, his flag seemed to say the same thing. The olive branch was nearly obscured by a fold in the flag, whether by coincidence or by design, and the bundle of arrows was displayed prominently. The President’s flag said it all.
The threat from ISIS is unlike anything this nation has ever encountered before, and it was certainly unanticipated. In May 2013, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote that it was “time to declare victory [in the “war on terror”] and get on with our lives.”
Little over one year later, an American counterterrorism official was quoted in the New York Times as saying that ISIS “is among the wealthiest terrorist groups on the planet.” The organization has “established territorial control and administrative structures on both sides of the Iraqi-Syria border,” according to Zachary Laub of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Essentially, this means that ISIS is not simply a state that sponsors terrorism. It is, at its core, a state of terrorism. Well-funded, well-armed, and well-aware of a world disgusted by its actions, ISIS has presented the United States with a bold and barbaric challenge.
Confronting this menace directly poses many risks. ISIS has reportedly struck a non-aggression pact with moderate Syrian rebels, and traditional allies like Turkey have shown little interest in helping the United States confront the threat.
Previous American interventions to combat terrorism have had unintended consequences. In Iraq, departing U.S. troops left behind a weak central government that was insufficiently prepared to fight a rapidly-spreading terrorist group like ISIS.
In the end, the threat of ISIS presents the United States with two unpleasant options: risky intervention in the situation, or foolish neglect.
It is unclear if the problem of ISIS can be addressed with a simple strategy, yet certainly any answer to the broader question of terrorism must be answered in terms of decades, not months or years. The “war on terror” never really ended, or even paused.
If our nation was to paraphrase Robert Frost in these uncertain times, perhaps we might say this: we still have miles to go before we sleep, miles to go before we sleep.