Pentagon Gets ISIS Metaphor Wrong, Critics Say

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 (NPR)
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter's metaphor for ISIS is that of a cancer that must be excised before it can metastasize. Critics say the description misunderstands the nature of the problem.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now the threat from ISIS is a big reason Europeans are talking of changing their border rules. We focus next on the surprisingly contentious subject of how to describe that threat. Defense Secretary Ash Carter of the United States has described ISIS as a cancer. NPR's David Welna reports that some critics see that as the wrong metaphor.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Defense Secretary Carter has degrees in theoretical physics and medieval history. But when the subject's the Islamic State, or ISIL as he calls it, he talks like an oncologist. Here is Carter at Fort Campbell, Ky., earlier this month speaking to troops deploying to Iraq.

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SEC OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: ISIL's a cancer that's threatening to spread. Like all cancers, you can't cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor. You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread and stop it from coming back.

WELNA: Carter extended that cancer metaphor further last week at a news conference in Paris. He was talking about what should be the first objective in a campaign against the Islamic State.

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CARTER: To destroy the ISIL cancer's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in Raqqa and Mosul.

WELNA: The next day at the French war college, Carter once again invoked the imagery of cancer while describing objective number two of the counter ISIS campaign.

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CARTER: To combat the emerging metastases of the ISIL tumor worldwide.

WELNA: Middle East expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma can see why Carter would use the figurative language of cancer to describe the fight against ISIS. But he finds the comparison simplistic.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It makes it seem like we're going to be able to apply our modern techniques of warfare in the same way that you would going into the hospital to fight some kind of skin cancer or something like that. It isn't going to be so easy.

WELNA: Landis says Sunni powers in the region, including Turkey, see the rise of the Sunni-led Islamic State more as a symptom of local Sunni resentment toward Shiite overlords. Their view, he says, is...

LANDIS: You have to destroy the bad Shiite government first, and then the inflammation, the side effects, the ISIS, will dissipate in a sense.

WELNA: U.S. officials insist it's ISIS that has to be dealt with first. Vice President Joe Biden spoke over the weekend.

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VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We do know that it would be better if we could reach a political solution, but we are prepared. We are prepared if that's not possible to make, to have a military solution to this operation.

WELNA: But operations do go badly both in the hospital and on the battlefield. Philip Gordon was until last year the White House coordinator for the Middle East. Battling ISIS, he says, risks creating even more enemies.

PHILIP GORDON: Like with a tumor, you do have to deal with it, and sometimes you have to cut it out, but you have to do it carefully because it has consequences that can even kill the patient.

WELNA: And the metaphor for that could be the Iraqi city of Ramadi, recently wrested from ISIS' control but left largely a pile of rubble. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.