In the hours after the horrendous attack on French revelers and tourists in Nice — celebrating Bastille Day in homage to liberty, equality and fraternity — supporters of the so-called Islamic State declared revenge for the reported killing of an ISIS commander known as "Omar the Chechen." Indeed, several of their top commanders have been eliminated in recent months, even as they continue to see their forces driven from cities and towns across Iraq and Syria. As this episode indicates, however, the terror group continues to possess the capacity to inflict mayhem in the West even as its "caliphate" begins to disintegrate.
President Obama warned about this paradox last month, when he reviewed the state of the war against ISIS following the shootings in Orlando, Florida. The "lone wolf" terrorists who perpetrate such atrocities are very difficult to detect and impossible to deter in every case. It is not yet clear what connection or support the terror group provided to the perpetrator of this latest atrocity in France, who reportedly was heavily armed. But cowardly terror against Western and Mideast civilians is increasingly the only way that ISIS can demonstrate power to its followers and its funders.
What media coverage of the terror strikes tends to obscure is that the strategy pursued by Obama is gradually destroying ISIS, as its thugs surrender one city after another. Starting with the battle for Kobani early last year — when Kurdish peshmerga fighters, bolstered by American air power, evicted the genocidal gangs — the tide of battle seems to have turned decisively against ISIS on the ground, in places like Haditha, Fallujah and, in due course, Mosul, where "Omar" is believed to have met his end. To date, ISIS has lost roughly half of the territory occupied since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of their "caliphate" in 2013.
Naturally, Obama receives no credit for the successful prosecution of this struggle from the Republicans, including their presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, who constantly blather about how we are "losing" and complain that the president doesn't show sufficient hostility to Muslims and Islam. These brilliant strategists have very little to offer regarding policy or planning, but emit plenty of loud advice about the proper rhetoric.
For months, they insisted that Obama had to denounce "radical Islam," as if that would magically disable the enemy; now Trump has announced that we must "declare war" against ISIS, presumably because he doesn't understand that our forces are deployed and conducting thousands of airstrikes. (It is all too easy to imagine the Trump campaign coming up with this pointless sound following the tragic news from Nice.)
Still clowning for a position in Trump's cabinet, Newt Gingrich came up with a fresh stroke of GOP genius after Nice, urging that we subject every Muslim American to "testing" on the subject of Islamic law; those who endorse shariah, he said, would be summarily "deported." So the former Speaker of the House casually suggested that we trash the First Amendment and our tradition of religious freedom, a legal and moral impossibility.
What Gingrich proposed is also a very stupid way to combat terrorism, which it would undoubtedly exacerbate. His scheme would please the kind of bigots that he has always courted, but it would only isolate and alienate the Muslim community, whose assistance in uprooting jihadi networks and identifying suspects is essential. Like his new idol Trump, Newt is just another "useful idiot" of ISIS, helping them to frame a holy war between Islam and the West even as their prospects decline.
And ISIS is in fact declining, by its own admission, although its propaganda apparatus and militant cells maintain the capacity to strike on at least three continents by managing or merely inspiring attacks. Destroying its bases and choking off its revenue sources in the cities it once held will eventually degrade its capacity to murder the innocent, whether in Paris, Nice or Baghdad. But that will take time.
Meanwhile, if the Republicans actually want to hinder terrorists, they might consider confirming Adam Szubin, the president's highly qualified nominee for treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, whose nomination they have stalled since his appointment in April 2015. They might even consider legislation to tighten access to military assault weapons and explosives, which terrorists can so easily obtain in this country.
But of course, they will do none of those things. They're all about talk, mostly inane and destructive, not action. It is the vilified but resolute Obama who has acted and — no thanks to his blustering political opponents — may yet see the "caliphate" extirpated before he leaves office. For the enemies of civilization, that will represent at least the beginning of the end.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.