There are times when I think Barack Obama understands every word we say; but then, at other times, not so much. His speech from the Oval Office on Sunday night was a classic case in point, a confused muddle from beginning to end. Rather than rallying the country against ISIS, Mr. Obama succeeded only in raising new questions about his ability to lead.
I have been an assistant professor at West Point, an adjunct professor at Georgetown and Dean of Students the National War College. Had any student enrolled in any of those august institutions transposed Mr. Obama’s random thoughts from Tele-Propter into a blue examination book, his ignominious failure would instantly have become legendary. Even Donald Trump, a man whose own malapropos are legendary, promptly tweeted, “Is that all there is?”
An excellent question, Mr. Trump, but do you really know much more than the hapless Mr. Obama? I write these words on Pearl Harbor Day: Do either of you understand its historical significance, that some of its lessons were relevant on 9/11 while others still haunt us in the age of ISIS? For example, Admiral Nagumo’s pilots taught us that that one should never, ever under-estimate a determined adversary. It is sheer folly to dismiss them outright (as a “JV team” remember?) but it may be even worse to lecture peer competitors about your administration’s airy-fairy ideals of 21st century statecraft. Given that one of those competitors holds a preponderance of our national debt, can you understand why such words might be seen as provocative? Or do you no longer feel compelled to make nice with your banker?
For the benefit of any presidents or presidential candidates who may be listening, here are five principles essential in eradicating ISIS.
1. You must defeat ISIS. Not just degrade or gradually destroy them. For the same reasons a competent surgeon cuts out a cancerous tumor. The difference between the conventional wars of the 20th century and the networked wars of the 21st is that the latter are terribly destructive of slow-moving, top-down hierarchies, particularly those led by incompetent amateurs. After 18 months of desultory, part-time bombing, our Air Force is running low on smart bombs, a symptom of national power applied in a haphazard, piecemeal fashion.
2. There is no military mystery about how to defeat ISIS. A multi-national, combined-arms campaign prosecuted jointly from land, sea and air, best accomplishes defeating ISIS: North from Israel and Jordan, west from Baghdad and east from the Mediterranean. Tanks, infantry, artillery, airpower, Soldiers, Marines and special operations forces – arriving all at once, timed for maximum impact. The strategy: Leave only bodies and smoking rubble behind where ISIS once reigned. Defeat them publicly and utterly, a campaign of annihilation which, if done correctly, doesn’t require years. General Dwight Eisenhower followed precisely that strategy to defeat Nazi Germany in the war that began on this day 74 years ago. So did General Stan McChrystal in Iraq, where President Obama rescued defeat from the jaws of victory.
3. Unless you like pushing strings, any coalitions of the willing are best led from the front. Mr. Obama alleged in his Oval Office speech that there is a 60-nation coalition opposing ISIS. So much for “leading from behind.” The ability to lead a coalition directly depends on the president’s ability to summon allies, whose collective enthusiasm for Barack Obama is under firm control. For a contrary and inspirational example of moral leadership, watch Hilary Benn’s speech “We must now confront this evil” which electrified the British Commons last week as it debated bombing ISIS. Mr. Benn, Deputy Labour leader, stood against his party because, “What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.”
4. Presidents redefine the national conversation. First example: Gun control has nothing to do with defeating terrorism but border control does. While there are good arguments why assault weapons and arsenals can be controlled without doing violence to the Second Amendment, those arguments have little to do with defeating ISIS. You defeat ISIS by killing its adherents, keeping our borders secure while insuring the terrorists have no safe havens left, let alone borders. (Incidentally, that’s also how you solve the refugee problem.)
5. Presidents redefine the national conversation. Second example: the media and Hollywood often tell us that the nation is tired from over a decade of fighting terrorism. Nonsense, the only reason why our soldiers return to the war zones three and four times is because only 1% of our citizens serve in uniform, while the other 99% do most of the complaining. So if you are truly serious about keeping your freedom, then see me after class to discuss enlistment or why we need national service.
A version of this piece previously appeared on http://www.realcleardefense.com