It may come as a surprise to the president, but key members of his national-security team say America is at war.

“We are definitively at war with ISIS,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. This comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declaring, “We’re at war…There are American troops in combat every day.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford bluntly adds that what he and his troops have waged the past 14 years “has been war.” And from the outset, the U.S. military has called its post-9/11 campaign of campaigns “the long war.”

With U.S. warplanes, attack helicopters, drones, artillery, commandos and Marines striking targets in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya—and U.S. personnel dying—it seems obvious that America is at war.

So, why would what’s obvious to most informed Americans come as a surprise to the commander-in-chief? For starters, President Obama insists that he “was elected to end wars.” Thus, as if to airbrush away all the unpleasantness of the Bush era, the Obama White House expunged the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements. President Obama’s secretary of homeland security went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.

“The president does not describe this as a ‘war on terrorism’” or a “global war,” then-presidential aide John Brennan explained in 2009, noting, “How you define a problem shapes how you address it.” Brennan, who is now CIA director, explained that “We are at war with al Qaeda,” adding, “You can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism.”

Then came what President Obama viewed as validation of his approach: the killing of Osama bin Laden. The president used the success of SEAL Team 6 as a springboard into what can best be described as the “post-post-9/11 era.” He promised, “The tide of war is receding.” In 2013, he said “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat.” By 2014, he assured the American people that it was time “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Yet even as America’s war on terror officially ended, terror’s war on civilization went on. There were massacres in Kenya, mass-kidnappings and mass-murder in Nigeria, bombings in Pakistan, IED attacks and ambushes in Afghanistan, a massacre in Ft. Hood and a bombing in Boston, coordinated assaults in Benghazi and Brussels and Paris, beastly killings across Syria, and a jihadist takeover of western Iraq, which brings us to ISIS—the al Qaeda offshoot President Obama once compared to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.” In fact, ISIS is a jihadist superpower:

  • ISIS controls 26,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria.
  • The number of foreigner fighters aligned with ISIS in Iraq and Syria has doubled, with 36,000 people from 86 countries now fighting under the ISIS banner. Some 34 militant groups from around the world have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
  • A congressional analysis reveals ISIS and its disciples have conducted 60 terrorist attacks in 20 countries outside Iraq and Syria. These include Brussels, Paris, Ankara, the Sinai, Beirut, Tunis, San Bernardino, Jakarta, Istanbul, and Aden.
  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reports ISIS is using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria.

The rapid rise of ISIS is an unintended—though not unpredictable—consequence of a policy that misunderstood the interconnected, metastasizing nature of jihadism and misread the takedown of bin Laden as a strategic victory, rather than a tactical success. Consider that there are 41 jihadist groups in 24 countries today (up from 21 in 18 countries in 2004), or that the Taliban controls more of Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001, or that there are more terrorist safe havens today “than at any time in history,” according to Clapper.

In short, if President Bush’s “global war on terrorism” was too broad, we now know President Obama’s war on “core al Qaeda” was far too limited.


The phrase “global war on terrorism” was always imperfect. We cannot defeat terrorism, critics like Brennan countered, because it is a tactic. Hence, they argued that a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst.

However, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.” Moreover, the civilized world has defeated or otherwise marginalized certain tactics and methods. In his book Surprise, Security and the American Experience, historian John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy, and genocide. (To be sure, these global ills still exist, but they are not commonplace and are not practiced by legitimate governments.)

Yet this isn’t about vindicating the Bush administration’s far-flung war on terror. It’s about protecting U.S. citizens, territory, interests, and allies. But don’t take my word for it: The FBI has approximately 900 active investigations into ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states. Some 250 Americans have attempted to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS. As FBI Director James Comey concludes, “Their ability to have a safe haven from which to gather resources, people, plan and plot increases the risk of their ability to mount a sophisticated attack against the homeland.”

According to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, “We have to energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during WWII or during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”

Can anyone honestly say the U.S. government is doing that today?

The first step in correcting this mistake is to call this war a war. The president may not like the term “war on terror,” he may want to turn the page on a decade of war, he may believe that saying something long enough and loud enough will make it so. But war was forced upon America in 2001. It did not end when President Bush left office in 2009, or when bin Laden was killed in 2011. And it did not end when President Obama declared, “the tide of war is receding.”

As French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy counseled after his country’s 9/11, “Dare to utter the terrible word ‘war’… The idea is heartbreaking and appalling, but it is a fact that we must face.”

Facts are stubborn things. And the facts are that a constellation of states and stateless groups seeks, by maiming civilization, to overturn the liberal international order established after World War II.

The way to deal with such an enemy is to defeat it, and that presupposes war. To be sure, the war on terror enfolds more than military operations. Intelligence, law enforcement, financial systems, and diplomacy play important parts, as they did during the Cold War. However, these are supporting parts because ISIS, al Qaeda, and their kind have defined this as a war.

Negotiation and compromise are not options with an enemy that, in bin Laden’s words, “loves death.” Deterrence and containment are wholly ineffective in the face of a global guerilla insurgency.

This argument may offend some people of faith. Isaiah, after all, called our savior the “Prince of Peace.” Yet Jesus had sterner words for scholars and scribes than He did for soldiers. In fact, when a centurion asked Him to heal an ailing servant, Jesus didn’t admonish the military commander to put down his sword. Instead, He commended him. As soldier-turned-author Ralph Peters reminds us, “Throughout both testaments, we encounter violent actors and soldiers. They face timeless moral dilemmas. Interestingly, their social validity is not questioned even in the Gospels…It is assumed that soldiers are, however regrettably, necessary.”

Indeed they are. In the same way, wars, however regrettably, are sometimes necessary. As Solomon grimly concluded, “There is a time for war.” This is such a time.

To come to this conclusion is not to celebrate war or thirst for it. Rather, it is to see this broken world as it is. Wars are costly and destructive. The costliness of war is one reason why it is to be prevented, if at all possible. The best way to do that is through overwhelming deterrent strength—something U.S. policymakers have forgotten in recent years. (That’s a subject for another essay.) But the costliness or destructiveness of an action does not make it wrong. If that were so, then it would be wrong for SWAT teams to lob flashbang grenades into criminal hideouts, or policemen to open fire on armed drug dealers, or state troopers to conduct high-speed chases, or FBI agents to descend on hostage-takers.

Whether at home or abroad, evil people who wish us harm have to be captured or killed for the protection of innocents, for the maintenance of order, and for the preservation of civilization.

“How you define a problem,” Brennan counseled in 2009, “shapes how you address it,” which is true. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the troops have defined this thing we’re in the midst of as a war. Seven years and three months into his administration, President Obama remains unconvinced.

Alan Dowd is a contributor to the digital and print editions of Providence.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Fire Base Bell, Iraq, fire an M777A2 Howitzer at an Islamic State infiltration route March 18, 2016. (Photo by Cpl. Andre Dakis/ Marine Corps)