President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and many other leaders are loath to acknowledge the Islamist nature of the various organizations that threaten the security of the entire Middle East, much of Africa, and parts of South Asia. They think acknowledging the religious roots of these movements will lend legitimacy to their cause; the establishment of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic Caliphate governed in accordance with Sharia Law. But if the world is to rid itself of these groups we will need a strategy, and the first step in developing a strategy is to gain an understanding of the adversary to be confronted and the environment in which they exist. By failing to acknowledge the religious motivations of these radical groups, President Obama makes it harder for those charged with developing a strategy to get this important step right.
In a perfect world, the President would lead his entire national security team in developing a strategy to defeat ISIS. In the real world it is the Department of Defense that develops the strategy, subject to political constraints imposed by the President and his White House staff. And within the Defense Department it is a small cadre of military planners and career civil servants who do the hard work of developing strategies to deal with the myriad problems we face. When their President speaks, they listen. And when their President describes ISIS as "thugs and killers, part of a cult of death", they will find it hard to develop a full understanding of the nature of ISIS and of the environment in which they are currently thriving.
Defeating a band of thugs and killers is a very different problem than defeating a militaristic religious theocracy in control of territory the size of Belgium. Thugs and killers are motivated by greed and a lust for power. The Islamic State is a religious movement. That is why we find it, or groups like it, in so many parts of the world. At its core are religious zealots motivated by a belief that they are agents of God. President Obama wants us to believe that ISIS has nothing to do with the Islamic faith. But if we base our strategy on that belief we are destined to fail.
ISIS draws its adherents from within the Islamic faith. They do not recruit Christians or Jews. They kill Christians and Jews. President Obama thinks that if he acknowledges the Islamic roots of ISIS, he will generate a firestorm of persecution against Muslims here at home and elsewhere. But prejudicial treatment of Muslim Americans is fomented by the horrific atrocities committed by ISIS, not by his words or their absence. The surest way to tamp down the flames of prejudice is to destroy ISIS and the broader movement of which it is a part. And that will require a strategy derived from a comprehensive understanding of ISIS, the broader movement from which it emerged, and the environment within which it thrives.
A comprehensive strategy against ISIS will have many lines of effort; diplomatic, military and information among them. Its execution will require the dedicated efforts of many players; State, Defense, Commerce, Justice, Treasury and their counterparts in coalition partners. But perhaps most important will be faith leaders and religious scholars; Muslim, Christian and Jewish. But most importantly, Muslim. If people of the Muslim faith hope to be welcomed in America and other western nations, their leaders will have to take an active role in discrediting and defeating the movement that kills and enslaves non-believers in their name.