Originally published here in The Hill on Sept. 22, 2016.
Thanks to swift action by law enforcement officers, no innocent American lives were lost in the string of terrorist incidents last weekend. A knife-wielding attacker in a Minnesota department store was shot by a brave off-duty officer. Authorities swiftly identified, then caught, a suspect in bombings in New York and New Jersey. It was great police work. The men and women who risk their lives to protect us deserve our gratitude.
But what they face is disconcerting. America experienced multiple attacks with multiple bombs in a city that suffered the worst attack our nation has ever endured, as well as what appeared to be a “lone wolf” intent on mayhem in a small city in the heartland that until now saw terrorism only at a distance.
But will these attacks be largely forgotten and ignored months from now? As I travel my home state, I ask Wisconsinites if they remember the name Samy Mohamed Hamzeh. Few do. But just last January, he was charged with planning to slaughter people at a Masonic center in Milwaukee. “If I got out after killing 30 people, I will be happy 100%,” he was recorded as saying.
This must not become the “new normal,” yet the list of targeted cities grows: St. Cloud, Minn.; New York; Elizabeth, N.J.; Seaside Park, N.J.; Milwaukee; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; San Bernardino, Calif. This threat is real, growing, metastasizing and evolving.
More than two years after President Obama stated America’s goal toward the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — defeat it — we have made little progress. As CIA Director John Brennan told Congress in June, “Our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” ISIS, he said, remains a “formidable, resilient, and largely cohesive enemy.”
This is the result of inadequate leadership and lack of commitment to the goal. The Obama administration has failed to act effectively against the root cause of these attacks, which is ISIS and Islamic terrorism. I liken it to finding that a swarm of bees has settled in your back yard. Instead of eliminating the hive, Obama is merely poking it with a stick, stirring it up, dispersing the swarm, and allowing the bees to set up new nests. His airstrikes have not wiped out ISIS. They’ve made it harder for would-be fighters to travel to ISIS’s Middle East stronghold, so now we see ISIS telling sympathizers to “kill where you are.”
As long as ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate exists, it will continue to inspire attacks. As long as ISIS is not seen as losing, young men will believe it is winning — and they will detonate pipe bombs in streets and stab people in malls.
ISIS must be destroyed. An effective effort will start with American leadership — the kind of leadership then-President George H.W. Bush displayed in 1991 during the first Gulf War, clearly stating the objective and assembling a committed coalition of the willing. It is underappreciated today that our allies bore 85 percent of the cost and contributed 200,000 troops to that successful effort to free Kuwait. We must destroy ISIS, and if America leads effectively, we won’t have to defeat them alone.
The objective should be clear: deny ISIS any territory, destroying the “caliphate” that provides inspiration to its believers. We must then relentlessly hunt down terrorists wherever they have found safe haven. This is not a quick and easy task. We are engaged in a generational struggle.
Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. He failed to learn the lessons that history taught us in Germany, Japan and South Korea: After a victory, a stabilizing force of America’s troops is needed to consolidate the peace our soldiers’ sacrifices had gained. Iraq was, as Joe Biden said in 2010, a success. Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated and a stable, peaceful country was a realistic possibility.
Then we bugged out, and ISIS arose from the ashes of what was a thoroughly defeated al Qaeda. Now ISIS’s disciples have slaughtered Americans at a Christmas party in California and a nightclub in Florida, and tried to do so in a mall in Minnesota and a Masonic center in Wisconsin.
To be clear: I do not blame the president, I blame Islamic terrorists. Obama stated the correct goal but has been deficient in laying out a strategy and fully committing to success. I doubt that will change before he leaves office, so the burden will be passed to our next president.
Defeating ISIS is only the first step, but one we must take if we ever hope to come out from under this cloud of constant threat.