President Obama was right to acknowledge in his G20 speech that Paris is not the only great city run wet with blood at the hands of ISIS. In just the last month, ISIS operations have killed the innocent in Turkey, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and in a Russian plane over Egypt. It is right that American and Western sorrow extends to victims of terror wherever they are. It is heartening that Obama has ordered closer collaboration with the French, aiding our ally with intelligence and support, and it is encouraging that such support has already resulted in French airstrikes against important ISIS targets including a recruiting center, ammo dump, training camp, and command center.
But despite these laudatory details, the simple fact that there was a command center, training camp, ammo dump, and recruiting center still around for the French to bomb calls into question the President’s continued claim that his goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Obama’s been insisting this for more than a year but if he were serious one would think even the desultory kind of air campaign he’s commanded might have thought an ammo dump worth hitting.
While Obama stubbornly insisted that ISIS had indeed “been contained” — as proved by the fact that they now control less territory than they had — he ought also to have admitted that whatever the value of achieving a relative stalemate on the ground, the ability of ISIS to export terror has apparently not been compromised in any meaningful way. Add the spectacle of their ability to strike abroad with the fact that even a stalemated “Caliphate” remains a “Caliphate” for those who wish to see it so and thus retains ISIS’s capacity to inspire recruits, operate training facilities for jihadists from around the world, and to maintain a fighting force and suddenly the notion that one might “degrade and destroy” terrorism through stalemate is proved imaginative to the point of hallucinatory.
Moreover, because ISIS-held land is land under violent occupation, the refugee problem is tied to its remaining ISIS-held land. But if the Paris attacks taught us anything it is that the refugee crisis has become what many have predicted — a crisis for more than just the refugees. Obama might have done his best to insist that screening and security measures can mitigate the dangers of large inflows of fighting-age men, but if such measures could not protect the French we are fools to believe they can protect us. The moral horror of facing a choice between compassion for our foreign neighbors and security for our local ones is probably not going to be a choice we can live with — morally or literally.
But this is the free world’s fight, not just America’s. Obama’s insistence on finding local partners capable of bringing the fight to ISIS, such as the Kurds, seems right in principle. Some commentators, Max Boot in particular, have pointed to our strategy in Afghanistan as a model. There, instead of a large conventional invasion we sent a proportionately small number of high-end Special Operators and CIA paramilitaries, backed by massive air power, to coordinate operations with the Northern Alliance.
In Iraq and Syria, Boot and like-minded thinkers see in the Sunni population another such potential partner. Were we able to mobilize and support the Sunni in an uprising against ISIS it would be a double-value: giving us a valuable local ally as well as depriving ISIS of one. This later point is crucial. Especially in light of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, the Sunni might believe themselves being forced to choose between the tyranny of either ISIS or Iran. We can give them a third option.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that whether concerning the export of terror, the refugee crisis, or the dangers of the maintenance of the caliphate, the only foreseeable end to this crisis is to see the end of ISIS. This carries with an obvious burden. Naturally, any such undertaking will require significant amounts of careful diplomacy to work out the political knots, not to mention the military commitments. If, however, it is right to eliminate ISIS then someone is going to have to do it, regardless of the difficulties. The United States is an indispensable leader, whether we like it or not. This might mean doing and spending more than we would like to, but if we have the power and the capacity we, by default, have the responsibility.