Washington: Anyone following the Obama administration's response to the threat posed by Islamic State this past week might have been left confused. Some might even have suffered whiplash.
"Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it is no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States," President Barack Obama said during a press conference in Estonia on Thursday. Minutes later he moderated that position, saying instead that a coalition force led by the US might "continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem".
Later that day Obama's Vice-President, Joe Biden, a man many believe still has an eye on the 2016 presidential campaign, began a speech on economics at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard by addressing the murders of two American journalists by ISIL, telling a cheering audience: "We don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving, and when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice, because hell is where they will reside."
It was at least possible during the week to get some clear-eyed analysis of what precise threat the administration believes the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also known as IS or ISIS) poses to the region, to Europe and America - and, by extension, to Australia.
On Thursday morning Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, addressed a packed room at the Brookings Institution. The agency he leads is a little known but critical cog in the US national security machine. Simply put, its job is to assess the seriousness of specific terrorist threats and terrorist groups.
When the President meets with homeland security advisers, it is Olsen's job to open the meeting by describing the threat to be discussed.
Olsen described a large and powerful terrorist group that now controlled territory about the size of Britain in the heart of the Middle East, boasted 10,000 fighters and operated the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any terrorist group on Earth. He said ISIL had proved to be an effective fighting force, its battlefield strategy "complex and adaptive, employing a mix of terrorist operations, hit-and-run tactics, and paramilitary assaults to enable the group's rapid gains".
It viewed itself as the new leader of the global jihad and had a strategic goal of establishing a caliphate through armed conflict with governments it considered to be apostate, including those of Syria, Iraq and the United States. Olsen noted that in January its leader "warned that the US will soon 'be in direct conflict' with the group, and there's little doubt that ISIL views the US as a strategic enemy".
Olsen said that ISIL's territorial control gave it safe havens from which it could plan and prepare for attacks on its enemies.
He noted that ISIL posed a direct threat to US personnel in Baghdad and Erbil, and to those based around the region – including in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. He said that an estimated 12,000 foreigners had fought in Syria, including around 1000 Europeans and 100 Americans. An unknown number of those might return home trained and radicalised.
But most crucially, Olsen said that ISIL does not yet have the capacity to carry out a complex large-scale terrorist attack, such as that which brought down the World Trade Center.
"ISIL is not al-Qaeda pre-9/11," he said in answer to a question after his presentation, "and we are not as a country, as a counter-terrorism community here but also in Europe, what we were pre-9/11. We are so much better postured in so many ways to see, detect, stop any type of attack like 9/11."
He said the main direct threat posed to the West by ISIL at present came from those foreign veterans of the Syrian war who might carry out small attacks either at their own instigation or the direction of group, citing the shooting attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May.
"Here in the United States, last year's bombing of the Boston Marathon is a sober reminder of the sustained threat we face from self-directed violent extremists," he said. He urged observers to consider ISIL in the context of a broader terrorist threat from many groups around the world.
"The terrorist threat emanates from a broad geographic area, spanning South Asia across the Middle East and much of North Africa. Terrorist networks have exploited the lack of governance and lax security in these areas. Terrorist groups are now active in at least 11 insurgencies in the Islamic world.
"The point is this: ISIL has captured our immediate focus, but it is only one of the myriad groups that pose a threat to us, as the terrorist picture evolves and becomes increasingly complex and challenging."
Olsen's nuanced message may go some way to explaining the contradictory language in Obama's press conference that same day. Since the murder of James Foley put ISIL on American front pages, Obama has sought at once to capture and reflect his nation's outrage while reining in calls for a massive armed response he believes would be ineffective - and probably counter-productive – unless and until a unified government in Iraq emerges.
Obama's reference in Estonia to degrading and destroying ISIL appears to serve that first rhetorical objective. His comment later in the press conference that ISIL would be reduced until its threat was "manageable" serves the second – his bid to explain to America the unpalatable truth that it will have to live with terrorism, even ISIL's terrorism, for a long time.
Obama's job is made harder by politicians in America and abroad who don't share any of his responsibility of gathering and leading the global response to ISIL, but are dramatising the threat it poses and calling for immediate responses to it.
Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and formerly a professor at West Point military academy, went so far as to argue this week that the paucity of America's political debate over the issue was the greatest threat to its global standing,
"One thing is clear about President Obama: right or wrong in his decisions, the guy does not want to be fed a bunch of bullshit," he wrote in an angry analysis for the foreign policy website War on the Rocks this week. "And many of the arguments made about ISIL, Syria, and Iraq these days are spurious - even when used to advance reasonable policy recommendations. The arguments to 'roll back' ISIL fall into this category.
"Obama recognises his critics are, intentionally and unintentionally, trying to back him into mission creep and he intends to avoid that outcome. As a result, he does less than he should (and maybe would) if he could manage the domestic politics and the US Congress better."
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