Editor’s note: The author will speak at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs Tuesday night through Friday. Click for more details.
By Dennis Jett
Special to the Tampa Bay Times
With the flood of news that assaults anyone with a smartphone or computer every day, there is no shortage of stories worth ignoring. One recent one is the controversy about President Donald Trump’s assertion that ISIS has been defeated, while others claim it has not.
This debate is unimportant for three reasons. First, words don’t matter to the president so what he says on one occasion has no bearing on what he says on another. Second, ISIS will never be defeated, so to try and assign a date for when it will is a waste of time. And third, ISIS is not that big a threat anyhow as there are other problems that pose a far greater risk to American lives than that particular terrorist organization.
The controversy arose because on various occasions Trump has claimed that ISIS has been vanquished, only to modify that assertion. He tweeted “ISIS has been defeated in Syria” only to adjust that to read “largely defeated” a few days later. He asserted in a video recording “We have won against ISIS” only to later admit the fight continues.
It is now reported that Trump may declare in the days ahead that all the territory that ISIS once controlled has now been liberated. Even if that were to be true, there are those that still see ISIS as unfazed and still a threat. Among those are the U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, and the heads of all his intelligence agencies.
The president has never let mere semantics slow him down, however. Take for instance his pronouncements on the need for a wall/barrier on some/all of the border with Mexico that will constructed of cement/steel that is being/needs to be built and that must be paid for by Mexico/congressional appropriations or by declaring a national emergency that few others perceive. And how many times has he started a sentenced with “some people say” and ended it with “probably” or “we’ll see.”
But all the words really don’t matter because ISIS will never be defeated. That is in part because there are some professions where there are no barriers to entry. Terrorists, politicians and political strategists are three that come to mind as anyone can declare themselves as having that occupation without regard to their qualifications. In addition to the fact that any group anywhere can label itself as part of ISIS, terrorism is a tactic. As long as there are people willing to randomly kill innocent noncombatants just to make a political point, terrorists, including groups like ISIS, will be around.
But one should not worry too much as it really does not matter all that much. It is certainly possible that ISIS could attempt to launch a terrorist attack in this country. But the annual chance of someone here being killed by a terrorist from another country is far less a risk than of being done in as a result of an animal attack. Or to put it statistically, one chance in over 30 million, which is better odds than winning the lottery, but not exactly something to stay up nights worrying about.
The threat from abroad also pales in comparison to domestic ones. There is no shortage of home-grown terrorist attacks if one includes the rampages by deranged people with semi-automatic assault rifles like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School almost exactly a year ago in Parkland. And what about the skyrocketing number of drug overdose deaths that is approaching the number of Americans killed each year in car accidents and by guns combined. Since it is estimated that half of those who died began their abuse with prescription opioids, would it not improve public safety if the prison at Guantanamo were filled up with pharmaceutical executives since they downplayed how addictive those drugs are in order to sell more of them?
ISIS gained control of a large swath of territory because of the chaos in Syria and the incompetence and corruption of the Iraqi army that the U.S. has been training for years. While liberating that territory is a good thing, it is not irreversible. And in terms of a threat to Americans, it is on a par with being ambushed by rabid raccoons or angry alligators. So, as with so many other topics, it really does not matter what the president has to say. And besides, it will be different tomorrow anyhow.
Retired ambassador Dennis Jett is a professor of international affairs in the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University.