The World

Obama: We Need to Fight ISIS, But Not for the Reasons You Think

President Obama delivers an address on ISIS from the White House on Sept. 10, 2014.

Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Overall, I agree with my colleague Fred Kaplan’s assessment that, in the plan he laid out for an offensive against ISIS, President Obama is doing “as close to the right thing as the mess of the Middle East allows.” Still, I want to focus on one of the odder aspects of this administration’s case for war: the fact that the president is arguing for the necessity of destroying ISIS without making a strong case that it poses a threat to the U.S.:

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our Intelligence Community believes that thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans—have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

A lot of facile comparisons are being made right now between this initiative and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it’s true that Obama will now likely be the second president in a row to leave an incomplete war in Iraq to his successor. But that caveated, hypothetical scenario in the president’s remarks—“these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks”—is a long way from “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Obama’s advisers have been even more skeptical about the ISIS threat to the U.S. homeland. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Wednesday, just hours before the president’s speech, that “at present, we have no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.” Matthew Olsen, departing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has made almost the exact same comment, as did White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

ISIS has, of course, killed two American citizens in a very public way. But with the very notable exception of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French citizen who returned from fighting in Syria to attack a Jewish museum in Brussels last May, the much-discussed threat of ISIS’s international fighters returning to their home countries to carry out attacks has been theoretical.

As David Sterman pointed out in an analysis for the New America Foundation this week, “no one returning from or seeking to join a Syrian jihadist group has even been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States.” Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the Florida man who returned to the U.S. for a time after training in Syria in 2012 and was under surveillance by the FBI, tried but failed to recruit friends to the cause, and eventually returned to Syria, where he carried out a suicide bombing. If anything, greater U.S. involvement in the conflict will make ISIS—a group that until recently was most concerned with local territorial gains—more rather than less likely to target U.S. interests and citizens.

But even if the administration isn’t selling ISIS as a clear and present danger to American citizens, those citizens seem to believe that it is. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week, 91 percent of Americans saw ISIS as a “serious” threat to the vital interests of the United States. This could be due to a number of factors, including the visible brutality of the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the tone of U.S. media coverage of ISIS, the more alarmist assessments made by politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, or the utter nonsense voiced by politicians like Rick Perry.

ISIS fighters could pose a direct threat to the U.S. in the future, but to their credit Obama and his senior officials haven’t been overstating it. If anything, Obama’s case for intervention rests on an argument that his critics often accuse him of ignoring: that despite presenting minimal immediate danger to Americans outside the region, ISIS poses a unique and serious threat to the stability of the Middle East. If left unchecked, its spread will lead to more violence and chaos that will threaten U.S. interests in the long term, and that any serious international effort to stop it will require the participation of the world’s pre-eminent military power.

But that’s the kind of argument that goes over better among think tank scholars and magazine feature writers than with the public. A war-weary American populace has come to favor yet another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East because it believes that ISIS poses a threat to America. Even if Obama himself hasn’t been hyping that threat, in this case he’s been aided politically by his most vocal critics, who certainly have been.