Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group now calling itself the Islamic State, recently threw down the gauntlet at the United States, intending to malign America as what he called the “defender of the cross.” He promised “soon enough . . . direct confrontation.” Not long after, President Obama took him up on it. Islamic State savagery has been on full display in Iraq, and Obama’s bold, if initially limited, intervention in behalf of Yazidi refugees and other vulnerable civilians at Mount Sinjar marks only a first stage of what will surely be a long struggle. How that struggle is defined will be crucially important going forward.
Baghdadi’s invoking of the cross, of course, echoes the crusader references that have been a staple of contemporary jihadist polemics, as if this contest has its roots in the 11th century. In Arabic, the word crusade is rendered as “war of the cross,” with deadly implications that the United States came slowly to appreciate after George W. Bush offhandedly defined his response to 9/11 as “this crusade, this war on terrorism.” With little or no idea of what it was getting into, Washington found itself in a full-blown religious war — attempting to out-zealot the zealots. The misbegotten US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan both served as massive recruiting festivals for self-anointed defenders of a brutal god.