President Barack Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba.
Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Obama on ISIS: ‘They’re not an existential threat to us’

As part of his trip to Argentina, President Obama co-hosted a press conference yesterday with President Mauricio Macri, and a reporter asked about the “optics” of Obama continuing with his schedule in the wake of the terrorist attack in Brussels. The American leader’s response raised some eyebrows.
“Groups like ISIL can’t destroy us, they can’t defeat us. They don’t produce anything. They’re not an existential threat to us. They are vicious killers and murderers who perverted one of the world’s great religions.
“And their primary power, in addition to killing innocent lives, is to strike fear in our societies, to disrupt our societies, so that the effect cascades from an explosion or an attack by a semi-automatic rifle.”
The president went on to explain that he believes in reminding terrorists about the weakness by rejecting their efforts to change how we live.
But for some on the right, there was an important problem. What does Obama mean ISIS isn’t “an existential threat”? How could he possibly say that?
I get the sense that there’s some confusion about the meaning of the word “existential,” so let’s take a moment to clarify. It refers to our existence – an existential threat is a threat that puts our existence in jeopardy. If, for example, a killer points a loaded gun at someone, the person at the other end of the barrel is facing an existential threat because the gunman might kill them.
ISIS is obviously dangerous and capable of deadly acts of terrorism, but to see these terrorists as an existential threat to our entire country is ridiculous. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the United States is a profoundly strong country, with the largest economy and largest military on the planet. ISIS, meanwhile, is a death cult with guns, suicide vests, and delusions of grandeur packaged in an effective online media operation.
As we’ve seen too often, ISIS militants kill innocents indiscriminately, and efforts to destroy the network must obviously continue. But to believe ISIS is an existential threat is to believe that the terrorists may succeed in eliminating the United States altogether. Our whole country will simply be wiped from the map.
And that’s bonkers. You can agree or disagree with the president’s decision to stick to his schedule, and attend diplomatic and social events abroad, but Obama’s assessment of the kind of threat ISIS poses to the United States was clearly correct.