With the anniversary last month of Pearl Harbor and the horrible attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, the comparisons between this generation and the generation that fought World War II (my grandfather's generation) have been made - they have not been flattering to the young people of today. And there is the broader question of national purpose - how effectively the United States mobilized to defeat the twin threats of Nazism and Imperial Japan in comparison to our muddled response to ISIS.
And in the past few weeks the GOP candidates have been promising to take ISIS seriously and defeat them, as opposed to our current feckless president who won't even say "radical Islam."
The comparisons to World War 2 are not fair. The threats and the times are different. Germany and Japan were modern, sophisticated nation-states that - quite simply - went mad and threw their entire vast national resources and capabilities into conquest. They had to be stopped and it required national mobilization to do so. Criticism of the president has some merit, however but must be tempered by fundamental realities.
ISIS, in their black eschatological heart of hearts, is just as murderous as the foes we faced in World War 2. There is no significant moral difference, but that doesn't mean the response should be the same. They are not in command of a modern sophisticated nation-state. They are more akin to the Mahdi who over-ran Khartoum and but was ultimately destroyed by Lord Kitchener. Modernity, particularly the rapidity of communications along with the relative ease of moving goods and people, augments the capabilities of these local bandits. Ideology empowers them further, giving them both a medium and a message.
ISIS has shown that it can reach deep into the West to carry out mass murder. Nonetheless, is it truly an existential threat? Are multiple Paris attacks in the works?
Should we treat ISIS like the Nazis? Draft young men between the ages of 18-24 and, with a 10 million man army invade and conquer Syria and Iraq? We kind of tried that. It didn't go so well and was hugely expensive. Several people have made the argument that we just didn't kill enough and if we were serious we would ignore the constraining rules of engagement and laws of war. If we were truly facing a deadly nation-state adversary those rules might need to be bent - particularly if we were on the verge of an existential defeat.
There are innumerable old Soviet hands/Kremlinologists bemoaning the end of the Cold War when geopolitics was simple. It was of course nice to have an organizing principle. But the serious risk of civilization ending nuclear war, and a super-power with global reach stirring up trouble and promoting a dehumanizing ideology are not pasts to romanticize.
Islamism is NOT the Axis powers or the Soviet Union. They may be able to raid us and certainly there is a world-spanning global identity and some ambitious ideologies. But even the strongest Muslim powers are quite often the weaker parties seeking support from Russia, China, or us.
During the Cold War, whatever happened, the key question was where are the Soviets what would be good for us vis-a-vis them. Now, even the questions (to say nothing of the answers) are much less clear.
A full on assault on ISIS would almost certainly strengthen the position of Assad, which is good for Iran. If we decide Iran is the lesser evil and we need to defacto ally with them to destroy ISIS so be it. We aligned with Stalin to defeat Hitler. But is that actually the case? Obviously the ideal solution would be for a moderate third option to support that could defeat Assad and lead Syria to a not awful future. Unfortunately looking at Libya and Iraq gives less than overwhelming confidence that these options exist.
So what are we doing? We are doing the things we can do - supplying, training, intelligence-sharing, bombing, special operations. This stuff will hurt ISIS over time, while keeping us from making a major (and expensive) commitment. It will also buy us time for better options and resolutions in Syria (granted, this is a very low bar and yet still might be impossible to achieve.)
All the President's Mistakes
That being said, there are places where we were not serious. How did DoD spend $500 million to train a proxy force that ended up graduating 5 trainees. Bureaucracies, left to their own devices do some things very well but need to be nudged along if they are tasked with something new. Every President finds this to be the case and, if they are effective at all, figures out how to push and prod the various arms of the U.S. Government. Time and again, this president has not been terribly effective at this (which hasn't prevented him from a pair of diplomatic coups in the Cuba and Iran deals.)
There have been analytic failures on Syria, most notably at the beginning in not recognizing the regime wouldn't fall quickly. The administration was besot with the romance of the Arab Spring and, first believed there would be a better Middle East and second that the Baathists of Syria would fold. Unfortunately the Middle East has a bottomless capacity to disappoint. As for Syria, even a cursory knowledge of that regime, in which a despised minority rules, cruelly, over a restive majority, should have indicated that the Baathists and the Alawites on whom their rule is based, would fight like hell to hold on to power. Their alternative was to be massacred.
This was followed by a long period of paralysis. Syria presented few good options. There is the possibility that an early intervention on behalf of the rebels, before the humanitarian crisis exploded and rebel factions metastasized into vicious radicals, might have resulted in a better Syria. But, given what happened in Libya, it was still a long-shot. Good options are rare and this is a region where a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddhafi is the least bad option.
Then there was the famous "red line" over using chemical weapons. There are intimations that the administration was quietly working out an arrangement to remove them, in which case the President's reticence makes sense - although even then, better contingency planning should have been in place. The potential that Syria might have used its chemical weapons was another obvious potential that needed to be discussed.
There have also been failures in rhetoric. When ISIS first emerged as something more than just another faction, first the administration derided it as terrorism's JV team. Later, the president admitted he didn't have a strategy to defeat ISIS. A week later he announced air support, intelligence-sharing, and training local forces. That took a week to come up with? He could have said that off the top of his head and been on pretty safe ground.
Obama has a weakness for incrementalism, trying to protect his decision-making space with limited decisions. Problem is that this is as likely to get you sucked into a conflict as keep you out of it.
Finally, after the San Bernadino attack, the President did not reassure the American people. Analytically I can respect his view point that in a diverse and open nation of over 300 million, preventing every single act of terrorism is not possible. It would require compromises on our civil liberties that are not in accord with our commitment to individual liberty and freedom of expression. (I am still surprised that such attacks do not happen more often considering the relative ease of carrying them out and persistent Islamist calls for them.) But at that moment, the American people sought to be reassured. The President did not deliver that message effectively.
There are analytical failures, there are management failures, but there are also communication failures. I read once that Bill Clinton's idea of leadership was, when he saw a parade forming, to jump in front of it. That can be cynical, but it is also part of leadership. As is talking up a modest initiative as a big deal. Much of what Obama is doing on Syria is about what would realistically be done. But he has presented it weakly. The president needs to look like he knows what he is doing.
War of No Ideas
Also, another area where we clearly aren't serious is public diplomacy/strategic communications. Public diplomacy is not easy, nor is it a panacea. Every think tank talk includes a call for "winning the war of ideas" but no one seems to have a clue how to do this. Nonetheless, after 15 years one would hope that at least the institutions would be established and funding be in place. Unfortunately that is not the case.
So, are we serious about ISIS? In some ways, very much so. The President is trying to keep the threat in perspective. While they are grabbing headlines they are not the only or even the most serious problem in the world. A resurgent Russia, the rise of China, Iran, and Pakistan - to say nothing of hard transnational issues. Syria isn't even the only civil war in the region (how about Libya and Yemen.) Serious people do not fly off the handle and go full bore at every single problem that faces them. That approach will win battles, but it may lose the war. We are applying force as appropriate, generating options - but preserving our capabilities in other areas as well. That is quite serious.