Updated Sept. 15, 2014 1:28 p.m. ET
There are plenty of potential problems to worry about in President Barack Obama‘s decision to go on the offensive against Islamic State fighters, and many have gotten ample attention in recent days. But here are three possible downside risks that aren’t so obvious, yet warrant some consideration:
• What if this fight is precisely what Islamic State wants? Logic would suggest that a group such as this one, with perhaps 20,000 fighters in its army and an embryonic self-declared state to protect, ought to try to avoid conflict with the largest power in the world.
Yet logic doesn’t always prevail with such groups. It’s entirely possible Islamic State’s leaders actually want a confrontation, and consider it a boon for their long-term prospects.
Being singled out by the world’s leading superpower can be, in the realm of ideological radicals, a kind of badge of honor. In this case, it may be used as a signal that Islamic State has achieved supremacy in the world of Islamic extremist groups. That distinction also can be a boon in recruiting young fighters and perhaps even in raising funds in the Islamic world.
The notion that Islamic State wants this fight is fed in part by its use of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Perhaps the group’s leaders thought the horror would terrorize Americans into backing away. But they must have known it was just as likely to compel the American public to demand a response.
Islamic State literature suggests the group thinks a confrontation with the West is inevitable. Muslims “have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature,” said the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, upon declaring the establishment of an Islamic nation this summer. Moreover, the group’s literature belittles other Islamic extremist groups for shrinking from or seeking to move slowly toward a fight with the West.
So it may be that Islamic State leaders want to pull the U.S. into a fight, and calculate that they can turn it into a debilitating long-term quagmire, in a part of the world where that has happened often. That’s not reason enough to avoid a confrontation, of course, and this approach could represent a giant strategic mistake by the group. Still, it also would be a mistake by the West to assume Islamic State is stumbling into this fight.
• The attention being focused on Islamic State actually may be increasing the risk of attacks from other groups. U.S. officials worry that extremist organizations, seeing their thunder stolen by the rise of Islamic State, may be plotting new terror strikes to show they are still relevant. That’s one reason some nations have raised terror-alert levels.
The leaders of al Qaeda, in particular, may see an incentive to strike now. Islamic State was born as a subset of al Qaeda in Iraq, but now it has both shaken off its former masters and openly criticized their approach to expanding Islam’s reach.
In a post on The Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog, Michael Kugelman, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, lists three other terrorist groups that have made credible threats to attack the U.S.: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Lashkar-e-Taiba of Pakistan; and the Pakistani Taliban.
• Americans’ enthusiasm for this fight may be perishable. At the moment, the public, outraged by those beheading videos, is in a mood to act. Almost two-thirds of those responding in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finished last week said they thought it in America’s interest to attack Islamic State.
The poll also suggested Americans were acting amid newly rekindled fear of the terrorist threat. The share of Americans who said the country is less safe now than it was before the 9/11 terror attacks jumped to 47% this month, from 28% a year ago. Just 26% said America is more safe now than at the time of the big attacks 13 years ago.
That marks an end to the trend that prevailed through most of the Obama term, in which Americans were inclined to say the country was safer than before 9/11.
But will that fear fade over time? Will Americans remain resolved to persist in a fight that Mr. Obama, along with just about every other analyst, has said will take a long time to win?
Until recent days, the public’s mood was decidedly against intervention in another Middle East fight. Now that the country is engaged in such a fight, there will be ups and downs, and some bad days. It’s far from certain today’s grim determination will prevail then.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org