Sometimes Obama seems a lot more worried about ISIS’ social media presence than about its tens of thousands of fighters carving their way across Syria and Iraq. While there is still no strategy for defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield, the administration has focused on a social media strategy instead.
The most dangerous component of ISIS isn’t online, but its most dangerous component to Obama is. An administration that runs on social media and public perception is a lot more worried about what ISIS says online than how many people it enslaves, rapes and massacres in Iraq and Syria.
One of the things that makes ISIS very different from other Islamic terrorist groups is how good it is at reaching Americans with its propaganda. That makes its recruitment of Muslims in America more effective, but it also means that the administration is unable to shove the war into the closet.
Obama’s disastrous Afghan surge cost thousands of American lives without ever beating the Taliban. But few Americans have any idea that anything went wrong because of a media blackout and an inability by Republicans to make the war into an issue. Obama’s illegal attack on Libya led to Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood taking over entire cities. But most Americans have no idea it ever happened.
ISIS however is really great at publicity. It’s as good at promoting its latest crimes as any Hollywood studio. Ignoring it isn’t an option. Obama tried and it culminated in the Yazidi genocide.
His strategy for fighting ISIS ties together all his old failed strategies. There are the selective drone strikes targeting ISIS leaders. He’s trying to keep together the old Libyan coalition for air strikes while expecting other countries to once again do most of the heavy lifting. There are more efforts at assembling a coalition of Muslim militias. None of these strategies can work or will work.
The international coalition depends on Turkey, a sometime ally of ISIS, which is much more interested in killing the Kurds fighting ISIS, than in fighting the terror group. The Muslim militias he’s backing either work with Al Qaeda and ISIS or work for Iran. And selective drone strikes are more useful for stopping a terrorist group on the run than a burgeoning country that conquerors territory and controls cities.
Failure alone wouldn’t bother Obama. Every conflict on his watch has gone disastrously. But his failures are no longer private. They’re not closed off in wordy debates in the denser parts of newspapers.
Obama can’t run away from ISIS the way he has from every other disaster in the Middle East. And he can’t defeat it without authorizing bombing raids with high civilian casualties or ground forces. But he isn’t even willing to bomb ISIS training camps, let alone less obvious targets, so winning the war is out.
Hitting ISIS hard or bringing ground troops back to Iraq for extended armed battles would tarnish what he sees as his progressive foreign policy legacy. That leaves him with very few options.
Lying about ISIS has been a consistent administration strategy and the latest revelations about intelligence reports that were doctored to make it seem as if ISIS were weaker and the campaign against it was working fit that pattern. But the lies were also futile. Like Benghazi, doctoring documents makes no difference when there are graphic photos and videos of another attack that everyone can see.
But it does fit the larger Obama strategy of running out the clock and making ISIS into someone else’s problem. The illusion of progress, however false and weak, is better than nothing. Obama is betting that he can stall the public with misleading claims that progress is being made in a long war effort.
But to get away with it, he has to do something about the publicity machine of the Islamic State.
Obama and the Caliph of the Islamic State mirror each other. Both believe in a “Forward” strategy that smashes through the Overton window by violating any and all rules of the game. Enemies are to be destroyed and rulebreaking is to be triumphantly normalized as the only way for the cause to win. Loyalty is pledged personally to the leader and even minor deviations by allies are ruthlessly punished.
Both also excel at social media propaganda. Obama and the Caliph are middle aged radicals surrounded by staffs filled with millenials to whom social media is second nature. Both sides have built a strategy of radicalization that is focused on turning out a narrow and passionately enthusiastic base while forcing everyone else to either accept their triumphs or scramble to engage in last minute resistance.
Obama’s base however limits itself to violent riots. It doesn’t behead people on camera.
Caliph al-Baghdadi has done for Islamic terrorism what Obama did for leftist politics. He took a creaky outdated infrastructure and modernized it and made it trendy. The Caliph of ISIS is to Osama bin Laden as Obama is to Bernie Sanders. In some ways he is Obama’s twin and that’s why Obama is losing to him.
Obama isn’t fighting a bunch of bearded relics in a cave somewhere. His opposite number shares much of his worldview. Obama and the Caliph both believe that wars are won by using publicity to create the illusion of an inevitable victory. Both men have built powerful publicity machines that crowdsource the distribution of their propaganda to volunteers to make it seem like an authentic grassroots message.
But it’s ISIS that has the momentum. Obama has always understood that doing something is more powerful than doing nothing. It’s why he has beaten Republicans so many times. But in Iraq and Syria, it’s ISIS that is aggressively moving forward while Obama struggles to create the appearance of action.
While Obama is unwilling to alienate Muslims and the left, the Islamic State has no such worries.
Obama can’t bring the war to ISIS. ISIS however has no difficulty recruiting Muslims in this country to bring the war to Americans. It doesn’t just do this with speeches or Islamic scripture, but with memes, hashtags and graphics that bypass the media to make the message clear to American audiences.
All this is typical of how Obama would wage a campaign against Republicans. And he has no defense against it because the momentum is on the side of the Islamic State. His hashtag war is defensive. So it’s no wonder that his own analysts admit that he’s even losing the social media war against ISIS.
The administration has been pressuring Twitter to shut down ISIS accounts and arresting ISIS propagandists because it can’t compete with them. It’s less concerned with terrorism than with the ability of ISIS to punch through and repeatedly remind Americans that the war isn’t over.
Obama’s ability to advance his foreign policy agenda, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Gitmo closure and a Palestinian state, depends on preventing Americans from realizing that ISIS is winning the war. Every time ISIS reminds Americans that it’s winning, his credibility and competence take another hit.
That’s why Obama is much more focused on taking out ISIS on social media than he is on beating their forces. Obama let ISIS take over Iraqi cities. He might be willing to let the Caliph have his Caliphate with its sex slaves and piles of corpses if only he would let Obama keep his memes and trending hashtags.