Before the Next Islamic State Attack
One way to judge anti-terrorism policy is to ask whether it's steady in the face of foreseeable events. The response in France to the Islamic State's attack on Paris fails this test: A predictable atrocity has been greeted with: "This changes everything."
President Francois Hollande appears to mean it. He declared that "France is at war" and is promising to destroy terrorism. He launched new airstrikes within hours. Wasn't France at war before? Wasn't it already bombing ISIS? Any government would need to voice outrage over an assault like the one in Paris, but it's nonetheless an admission of failure to say, "This changes everything."
ISIS killers are undoubtedly planning attacks on a similar or larger scale in the U.S. and Europe right now, and not all of them will be stopped. The right policy after the next such attack, whatever that policy may be, is the right policy now. The reaction to the next attack should be, "This changes nothing."
This argument would be wrong if the attack had been hard to anticipate (like 9/11, for instance). But it wasn't. The reasoning would be different if a tacit threat of escalation had been intended to keep ISIS at bay -- as though France had been saying, "Everything changes if you dare to attack our cities." But this doesn't apply either. Telling ISIS that the U.S. and its allies will escalate if they're attacked is pointless. Escalation is what ISIS wants. Deterrence doesn't come into it.
Fine, you might say, but then what would a good robust strategy look like? A hard question, but here's one way to sum it up: Governments have to learn the lessons of the disastrous war in Iraq without being paralyzed by them.
Caution is good. If the Iraq fiasco teaches anything, it's that. Caution means, above all, that the U.S. and its allies should moderate their expectations and pursue limited, achievable objectives. Terrorism cannot be destroyed, only checked. Military power, even deployed on a massive (hence unsustainable) scale, can't eradicate the threat. Judiciously employed alongside other measures, though, force can deny ISIS vital resources and lessen the danger. Promising anything beyond this is a formula for endless escalation and ultimate failure.
The Obama administration has indeed been cautious -- too much so. No boots on the ground is the clearest legacy of the Iraq debacle. This policy is wrong and announcing it as a kind of binding principle was foolish. It's plainly inconsistent with Obama's promise to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS.
Granted, an enormous commitment of ground forces wouldn't guarantee success commensurate with the costs and the risks -- Iraq showed that much -- but freer use of U.S. and European special forces in combination with air power would be a much more potent way to trouble ISIS than the current strategy. The U.S. and Europe should put significant numbers of highly specialized boots on the ground.
What about the slippery slope? That's a danger, no doubt, but the U.S. and its allies are on that slope already. There's nowhere else to stand. Complete disengagement -- leaving ISIS to build its medieval state unharassed -- is no more promising than all-out war. There's no reason to suppose that ISIS would be content to confine its savagery to a compact, inward-looking dystopia in parts of today's Syria and Iraq. Why would anybody think its ambitions are so limited? It will have to be resisted; the challenge is to resist it effectively.
A clearer sense of priorities would help. Degrading ISIS should be the main goal. Bashar al-Assad is evil but he doesn't directly threaten the West. The goal of forcing his removal shouldn't be allowed to prevent the emergence of a stronger anti-ISIS coalition. Rather than scheduling his certain departure, it would be enough, for now, to curb his atrocities against his own people -- violence which is appalling in itself but which also sends new recruits to ISIS.
When it comes to defenses at home, Europe has problems all its own in gathering and pooling intelligence, and in tracking the movement of people across its open internal borders. It also has many more angry and alienated Muslims than the U.S. does. Whether the Schengen free-movement zone can survive remains to be seen -- but for that to happen, Europe will need to get much better at securing its external border, processing refugees, and cooperating on policing and security.
Finally, in addressing their Muslim citizens, the U.S. and the EU have the extraordinarily delicate task of selectively hardening and softening their approach. Acting in support of ISIS, including traveling to join its ranks or making plans to do so, should be prosecuted as serious crimes, akin to treason. At the same time, a vigorous counter-propaganda effort is needed to assure the vast majority of Muslims at home and abroad that ISIS, dedicated to recasting one of the world's great religions as a sadistic death-cult, does not diminish their standing in Western eyes.
Whatever happens, there'll be no outright victories in this fight, and doubtless many more casualties to come. The U.S. and its friends can't eliminate the danger -- but they can do more than they have so far to contain it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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