In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the community of security experts in the US and abroad seems already to have formed a consensus about what happened, why it happened, and what to do about it. Those of us concerned about another post-9/11 disproportional response had better pay attention to this consensus. It includes the following:
- ISIS is now a global menace, capable of carrying out terrorist acts anywhere. It is conducting military operations in about a dozen countries now. Nobody is safe.
- ISIS is entirely different from al-Qaeda and other terror groups; it is (and should be treated as) an aggressive state with which we are at war.
- The Paris attacks are (in President Obama’s words) “an attack on the civilized world.”
- The international community must come together and redouble efforts to attack and defeat ISIS. The US, EU, Russia, and Middle East countries should decide on a distribution of military effort, including more boots on the ground, to take the fight to ISIS.
- Stricter regulations must be developed to secure borders and identify terrorists among Muslims living in or coming to Europe, the US, and Russia.
It is easy to be swept along by the wave of revulsion the Paris attacks have created. ISIS has given the warrior class in the US, France, and elsewhere a great gift, allowing politicians on the far right (and some so-called liberals) to put terrorism back at the top of national priorities. Just as in 2001, they want to make a terrorist attack on “our freedom” a game-changer, meaning a shift to restrictions on civil liberties, more money for the military, and severe limits on immigration. We may then be asked to support another Congressional resolution that reaffirms the Bush strategy of endless war and allows for unconstitutional and unlawful acts at home and abroad.
Let’s try to maintain some perspective here. ISIS is a brutal, deadly foe, more so than al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban—all of which, by the way, have carried out attacks that have resulted in many more casualties than those in Paris. But ISIS is not the USSR, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan. It has committed terrible crimes, but it is not about to land troops on Europe’s beaches, fly drones over Riyadh, or launch nuclear-tipped missiles. ISIS is an apocalyptic movement with an end-of-days mission—a terrorist group posing as a state, “an organized attempt to sow panic” (in Paul Krugman’s words: www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/opinion/fearing-fear-itself.html) rather than to attack Western civilization. Whether the motives behind ISIS’ Paris terrorism were a response to France’s involvement in Syria, a show of strength in the face of recent setbacks there and in Iraq, or a demonstration that its agents can outdo any other terror group—all these being current interpretations in the media—the fact is that ISIS remains a relatively small organization whose ideology has extremely limited appeal to Muslims.
Thus, in words and in deeds, we need to avoid repeating the overreach of the Bush post-9/11 years, when the President was empowered by Congress, the media, and the public to take whatever measures he and his frightful team deemed necessary in the name of national security. They lied their way into Iraq, and in the process of dismembering that country laid the basis for the emergence of ISIS.
We can be fairly certain that a repeat of the Bush performance will play directly into ISIS’ hands. (See Graham Wood, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/.) ISIS leaders want a declaration of war against it, want a politics of fear to seize France and the West, and want more active international intervention (especially by the US) in Syria. All such actions tend to legitimize ISIS, generate more recruits, and, in the minds of ISIS leaders, bring it closer to the ultimate battle and a glorious victory for its version of Islam.
What, then, should and can be done—and not done? Here’s my answer:
- Intelligence sharing—“systematic sharing of information in real time,” as one European counterterrorism specialist puts it—must be stepped up by all parties to the anti-ISIS conflict.
- Redoubled efforts must be made to establish a cease-fire and formation of a transitional government in Syria. (Though the US and European Union may have to tolerate the presence of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian government for some time, the Paris attacks may actually weaken his position by forcing Putin to refocus Russian air assaults on ISIS rather than on Assad’s opposition.)
- Militarily, every effort must be made to create a genuine coalition to fight ISIS, one that relies mainly on ground forces from Middle East countries in combination with US, Russian, French, and other air and naval support. No US troops should be committed beyond the small number of Special Forces already deployed to Syria.
- Saudi Arabia must be pressured by Washington to end its criminal bombing campaign in Yemen, find ways to cooperate with Shiite Iran, and make a significant contribution to the anti-ISIS fight.
- All countries, starting with the US and EU, must agree to increase the number of refugees they accept from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries in conflict in the Middle East; and they must greatly increase aid to Lebanon, Turkey, and other receiving countries that face huge costs to host refugees and displaced persons. (Writing in The New Yorker of November 9, George Packer reminds us that the US admitted over 1 million Southeast Asian refugees following the Vietnam and Cambodia conflicts, and that Obama’s proposed quota of 10,000 Syrian refugees “represents just half the monthly total of Indochinese refugees brought here in 1980.”)
- The US and EU, France in particular, must reject all attempts to legislate anti-immigrant laws and regulations. These “shameful” actions, in Obama’s words, are immoral and politically bound to benefit terrorist movements.
- Similarly, efforts by the intelligence community to use the Paris attacks as justification for restoring limits on surveillance of private citizens’ communications must be rejected.
- Serious efforts must be made in France and elsewhere to integrate Muslim populations, especially young people, into the larger society, so that they are given employment and educational opportunities. Unless and until that happens, young Muslims will be attracted to ISIS and find ways to get to the Middle East for indoctrination and training in terrorist tactics.
President Obama so far has taken the right step in insisting that the US does not need to make a strategic reevaluation with regard to ISIS. The US is deeply enough involved in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Whether his judgment of US limits abroad applies as well to US society—whether, in short, he intends or feels compelled to follow in the footsteps of François Hollande and restrict personal liberties in the name of national security—remains to be seen.