We Need Clarity about ISIS, and the Democratic Candidates Didn’t Provide It

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

Rescue workers gather at victims in the 10th district of Paris, Friday, November 13, 2015.

Many Democrats—including the candidates for president at Saturday night’s debate in Iowa—are not registering the full import of the attacks in Paris. When French President Francois Hollande declared the massacre “an act of war” and ISIS claimed responsibility and announced that the attacks were the “first of a storm,” the conflict with ISIS entered a new stage.

In responding to the advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration has tried to rely on local proxies—Syrian moderates, Kurds, the Iraqi army—to do the fighting on the ground, while the United States has supplied air power, intelligence, equipment, and other resources. Obama’s reluctance to commit ground troops is understandable. But with clear evidence his strategy was insufficient, the president announced on October 30 that several dozen special operations forces would go into Syria.

Although the Kurds have recently had some success in breaking ISIS’s supply lines in western Iraq, the basic assumptions behind Obama’s original strategy have now been shattered in two ways. First, the local ground forces are too weak to defeat ISIS on anything like a reasonable timetable. And second, as the downing of the Russian airliner and the attacks in Beirut and Paris show, we can no longer assume that ISIS is focused entirely on seizing and defending territory. It is a much more direct threat to us. No one should think that because ISIS murdered Russians and Parisians first, it won’t murder Americans next on a large scale.

That is why the responses of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley at the Democratic debate were so unsatisfactory. Sanders and O’Malley were out of their depth on foreign policy, but even Clinton fell short. When she said that, “it cannot be an American fight,” she may have meant that the fight against ISIS cannot only be an American fight, or that the United States should just provide logistical support. But to call for a multilateral effort is not enough. A presidential candidate should be clear that the United States is going to have to lead that effort, and if that effort is to succeed, it more than likely will require more American troops than the few dozen that Obama has already committed.

The proper analogy here is not to the Iraq War, but to the original response of the United States after September 11, 2001, in going into Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That effort was justified as self-defense, and it should have been sharply delimited, with no illusions about permanently changing Afghan society. But we could not live with a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda able to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which it could launch attacks.

So, too, we—and it is a very broad “we,” encompassing not just NATO allies, but many other countries—cannot live with ISIS launching attacks from its sanctuary. ISIS, in fact, is an especially grave threat because the territory it holds provides it with oil resources and wealth and consequently the ability to finance and organize terrorism on a far-reaching basis.

Of course, we should never intervene militarily in any region, least of all the Middle East, without adequate justification and a plan of action. But Syria’s civil war has now become four separate disasters: 1) the horrors being visited on the Syrian people; 2) the flood of immigrants into Europe; 3) the right-wing reaction in Europe being fed by that flood; and 4) the direct threat posed by ISIS. We have passed a threshold of justification. The plan must follow, developed in coordination with other countries.

Who was Hollande speaking for when he said the Paris attacks were an “act of war”? Was it just an act of war against France? Or was it an act of war against America as well? Americans ought to be clear that the war ISIS is fighting is as much against us as against the French, and we have to act accordingly. Although the wide opposition to ISIS creates an opportunity to organize a broad military coalition, the United States cannot build such a coalition while insisting that someone else—anyone else—do all the actual fighting.

In any event, I suspect that ISIS itself will clarify the realities. When it says the Paris attacks were the “first of a storm,” we should brace ourselves. And the Democratic candidates should be clear about what we should be prepared to do.

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