In May of 2013, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama declared that the "Global War on Terror" is over. Al-Qaida was on "a path to defeat" in Afghanistan, he said, and our biggest threats were now homegrown.
"Deranged or alienated individuals - often U.S. citizens or legal residents - can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad," he said. "That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon. So that's the current threat: Lethal yet less capable al-Qaida affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism."
As the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has now proven, Obama could not have been more wrong. It was his George Bush-style "mission accomplished" moment.
And it is consistent with a general naivety about foreign affairs that now has the president being dragged unwillingly back into the conflict in Iraq, which he attempted to walk away from by withdrawing U.S. troops and crossing his fingers.
The seizure of major Iraqi dams and oil fields by Islamic State forces and the brutal execution of American journalist James Foley have finally gotten the president's attention.
In the wake of Foley's slaying, Obama issued an international call to arms. "One thing we can all agree on is a group like ISIL (Islamic State) has no place in the 21st century," Obama said. "From governments and people across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread," he said.
It was a stark contrast to comments the president made about Islamic State in January, when he compared the group to a high school basketball team that lacked the talent and capabilities to pose a major global threat.
Now it looks like the administration, perhaps reluctantly, is planning to do what it takes to confront Islamic State militarily. Secretary of State John Kerry said in the wake of Foley's murder, "Make no mistake: We will continue to confront (Islamic State) wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred. The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. (Islamic State) and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous atrocity (Foley's execution) will be held accountable."
Last Friday The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. had begun work to put together a broader international effort against Islamic State, one that the Pentagon warned would require taking the fight beyond Iraq and into Syria. It quoted Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying Islamic State could only be defeated if its operations in Syria are upended and said the U.S. will seek a regional coalition to accomplish that task.
Perhaps the biggest threat posed by Islamic State is that it includes so many fighters from western nations. The terrorist who killed James Foley is believed to be British and intelligence suggests there are as many as 100 Americans fighting with Islamic State. The fear in the U.S. and Europe is that those fighters could easily return home to do violence. That worry is providing increasing impetus to confront Islamic State now, on foreign soil, and neutralize it.
Obama's declaration that the Global War on Terror is over is the worst sort of wishful thinking, and the sort of thing that has contributed to his low marks in polls on competence in foreign policy. Islamic State is, as the president says, a cancer that we need to excise, and to accomplish that, we're going to have a pretty big fight on our hands.
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