The terrorist attacks in Paris last week that killed and wounded hundreds of people at several public venues were the worst terror incidents in Western Europe in more than ten years and appeared to confirm that ISIS has morphed from a regional into an international threat.
There had been some debate as to whether recent bombings in Beirut and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula signaled a significant change in tactics for an organization that had initially been perceived as focused on building a caliphate comprised of captured territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
The debate is basically over and the emerging consensus is that we are indeed facing a new and frightening challenge. Unfortunately, President Obama seems wedded to his existing strategy of relying on air strikes and minimal assistance to local forces – a strategy that clearly isn’t working.
The New York Times, hardly known for its interventionist tendencies, editorialized on Sunday that these events “show a new phase in the Islamic State’s war against the West, a readiness to strike far beyond areas it controls,” and concluded that
The attacks in Paris sent a major shockwave around the world, and the Beirut bombings and the downing of the Russian civilian jetliner Russian were every bit as horrific. ISIS has demonstrated that there is no limit to its reach, and no nation is really safe until they all come together to defeat this scourge.
William McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse and a Brookings Institution scholar, said of ISIS: “They have crossed some kind of Rubicon. They have definitely shifted in their thinking about targeting their enemies.”
Mathieu Guidere, a scholar at the University of Toulouse and a terrorism expert, said, “There is a radical change of perception by the terrorists that they can now act in Paris just as they act in Syria or Baghdad. With this action, a psychological barrier has been broken.”
Frances Fragos Townsend, the top White House counterterrorism adviser under George W. Bush, said, “ISIS is absolutely a threat beyond the region. We must not continue to assume that ISIS is merely an away threat. It clearly has international ambitions beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate.”
There’s no question the Paris attacks will enervate the public debate over whether and how to escalate U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Townsend says the Obama White House has been reluctant to acknowledge the “inconvenient truth” that the danger posed by ISIS is international in scope and could easily result in an attack on the U.S.
But President Obama, who has studiously avoided uttering the words “Muslim” or “Islamic” in conjunction with “terrorism” – even when perpetrators of a particular outrage scream “Allahu akbar” – seems oblivious to the new challenge.
The president was asked by reporters about the apparent failure of his Iraq/Syria policy and whether, in light of the Paris attacks, he had underestimated the capacity of ISIS and a rethinking of the use of U.S. troops was in order. He quickly pushed back and emphasized that there would not be a shift in U.S. policy or any significant ratcheting up of American forces:
It is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that that would be a mistake because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.
The president is rightfully concerned about getting the country enmeshed in yet another Middle East morass. But ISIS is an invading rather than an indigenous phenomenon. And there are local forces – the Kurds and the Syrian military, to cite two examples – that are ready to do battle with ISIS that could be successful with even incremental U.S. support.
The ISIS threat is not a distant abstraction anymore. We hope, though admittedly without much basis, that President Obama is up to meeting his responsibilities.