Over the weekend, the Century Foundation’s Michael Cohen had a terrific piece in the New York Daily News, making the case against pundits and politicians demanding more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The same edition of the same paper on the same day had a five-word, all-caps headline on the front page: “ISIS will be here soon.”
There’s quite a bit of this going around. President Obama’s Republican critics haven’t just condemned his foreign policy, they’ve also suggested the White House’s approach will lead to a terrorist attack on American soil. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went further than most a few weeks ago, insisting that if Obama “does not go on the offensive against ISIS,” presumably in Syria, “they are coming here.” Graham added, “[I]f we do get attacked, then he will have committed a blunder for the ages.”
Rhetoric like this isn’t subtle: ISIS wants to kill us all and that rascally Obama is doing nothing except launching several dozen airstrikes on ISIS target in Iraq. A 9/11 kind of event may be in the planning stages, the argument goes, so the president must strike in Syria immediately.
But how imminent a threat are we talking about, exactly? The New York Times reported the other day on ISIS’s “prodigious” print and online materials, which reveal some relevant details.
ISIS propaganda, for instance, has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West, even though its most notorious video, among Americans, released 12 days ago, showed the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, threatened another American hostage, and said that American attacks on ISIS “would result in the bloodshed” of Americans. This diverged from nearly all of ISIS’s varied output, which promotes its paramount goal: to secure and expand the Islamic state.
The same article quoted a scholar who said ISIS has consistently focused on what militants call “the near enemy” – leaders of Muslim countries like Bashar al-Assad of Syria – and not “the far enemy” of the United States and Europe. “The struggle against the Americans and the Israelis is distant, not a priority,” Fawaz A. Gerges said. “It has to await liberation at home.”
The piece added, “Al Qaeda has often stressed the advantage to the terrorist network of supporters who hold Western passports and can attack in their countries. But a common public rite of passage for new recruits to ISIS is tearing up or burning their passports, signifying a no-going-back commitment to the Islamic state.”
I wonder if Lindsey Graham read the article.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting ISIS is irrelevant or that U.S. officials should be indifferent to the terrorist threat. The terrorist group is clearly dangerous and the national security apparatus has a responsibility to take ISIS seriously.
But there’s a line of argument that’s emerged in recent weeks that effectively calls for panic – as if Obama’s reluctance to attack Syria without a coherent plan is going to kill us all.
There’s no reason to take such rhetoric seriously. There’s time to get this policy right, whether Republicans and the Beltway media find this unsatisfying or not.