Degrade and Destroy

By Amos Guiora for the Global Justice Blog.

[Note: This Global Justice Blog post is a counterpoint to a post earlier in the week by Professor Wayne McCormack titled, “Obama-Bashing Lets the Jihadists Suck Us In Again.” Professor Guiora also asked that we link to President Obama’s comments on ISIL dated September 10, 2014]


President Obama’s promise to the American people that he intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS fails rhetorically, arguably falls short legally and remains to be seen whether effective substantively.

There is no substance behind the phrase, only empty sloganeering. To assume that a terrorist organization, whose barbarism is stunning, can be destroyed by air attacks—regardless of their quantity and quality—is to fundamentally misunderstand the essence of terrorism. A terrorist group, deeply committed to an extremist interpretation of religious text, will be not be “degraded” much less “destroyed” by air attacks.

My colleague and good friend, Professor Wayne McCormack criticizes President Obama for being “goaded” into a war that gives “jihadists another recruiting tool”. To cast them asunder as “psychopaths” and “thugs”, as Professor McCormack does, is to underestimate the religious extremism that is the crux of ISIS. After all, ISIS’s specific goal is clear: to establish a broader Islamic caliphate.

In referencing and emphasizing the beheadings both President Obama and Professor McCormack miss the essence: ISIS is a terrorist organization deeply committed to a particular worldview predicated on an extremist interpretation of religious text that goes far beyond the unimaginably barbaric killing of two US journalists.

President Obama seemingly spoke the truth recently when he admitted his Administration did not have a “strategy” regarding ISIS. The admission was revealing because it unequivocally demonstrated President Obama did not consider ISIS a threat worthy of a strategy. That is telling.

To conclude, as the President seemingly did, that ISIS poses a threat only after the beheadings is remarkable: ISIS did not become more dangerous after two US journalists were murdered. ISIS has been an important and viable threat since it began its determined march through Iraq and Syria with future destinations readily predicable.

However, in response to this clear threat the President offered few specifics; those he did, were unconvincing. The President failed to define the term “destroy”; does he genuinely believe that ISIS will be defeated by US led coalition limited to air strikes and drone attacks? As these words are written it is unclear both as to the composition of the Coalition members and the nature and degree of their involvement.

Similarly, the President failed to make a compelling argument regarding the legality of his decision. It is unclear to what extent the self-defense, as articulated in Article 51 of the UN Charter, applies to ISIS; similarly, it is uncertain whether the Authorization to Use Military Force, enacted by Congress in 2002, applies to the decision to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. The failure to clearly articulate a legal argument was noteworthy for a President whose Administration is inherently cautious, circumspect and steeped in words.

Finally, what is the end game? How will effectiveness be defined? What are the benchmarks? What will be the decision points for determining that an air only policy is ineffective and that the few hundred advisors need to become a significant number of “boots on the ground”?

There are two ways to look at the failure to address these points, one positive the other negative. The positive: the President has a blue print but prefers not to share with the public or with ISIS. That is reasonable and understandable if truly the case. The negative: the Obama Administrations’s late realization that ISIS poses a threat and relying, as does Professor McCormack on the beheadings as the basis for action, forced him to speak before having a genuine plan in place.

ISIS is not comprised of thugs or psychopaths; ISIS wants to establish a broad Islamic caliphate in the Arab world. That directly impacts US interests. That goes far beyond beheadings; to emphasize the beheadings is to deliberately mis-articulate the threat posed by Islamic extremism as practiced by ISIS. The President failed to compellingly articulate his vision, plan and rationale. This is not the time for rhetoric; this is the time for a strategy based on the law, recognition of the essence of the threat and clear articulation of reasonable goals and aims.

The phrase “degrade and destroy” is empty; similarly, to suggest these are merely “thugs” is to underestimate the threat posed by a terrorist organization dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

Amos Guiora is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah. Guiora who teaches Criminal Procedure, International Law, Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism and Religion and Terrorism incorporates innovative scenario-based instruction to address national and international security issues and dilemmas.