In terms of population size, the 129 persons murdered in Paris were equivalent to losing 1,000 Americans in our nation’s capital. With echoes of 9/11, President Hollande declared the massacre an “act of war,” pledging to fight with “all the necessary means, and on all terrains, inside and outside, in coordination with our allies.” Allies include America. An attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all. France stood with us in Afghanistan. Will the U.S. join with France in going to war? And what does war mean?
President Obama’s Options. A few days ago, President Obama claimed that ISIS had been “contained.” Now the Islamists have called him out. He has no choice; he has to do something. He has three options.
Option 2. A defensive no-fly zone. The second option is to create a no-fly zone in northern Syria. To date, he has firmly declared that he will not do this. Our military would need substantial air-related assets, costing in the billions. The odds are overwhelming that both the Russians and Assad’s air force would stay away from the zone, not least because they stand no chance against our air.
However, a no-fly zone by itself is a defensive move that gets us into a war without the resolve or resources to win it. The zone would still be vulnerable to ground-based attacks. To prevent that and to apply pressure against ISIS, the allies would have to turn the zone into a forward operating base, moving in tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships, trainers, logistics, etc. To do that requires a major force numbering more than 10,000. At that point, the no-fly zone has morphed into a ground war.
This will not happen. Mr. Obama will not reach out to Arab states to pull together a coalition, let alone initiate a major war he cannot end before leaving office. That is not the legacy he envisions. By doing little except talking, he can wait and let anger about the Paris massacre subside, while hoping there is not a terrorist attack here in the U.S.
The congressional option: change the authorization for war. Currently, the anti-ISIS bombing campaign is permitted under the 2001 congressional law authorizing the use of military force, or AUMF, against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2013, President Obama said he looked forward to repealing AUMF because “this war, like all wars, must end.”
However, the Islamists decided not to end the war. Last week, Obama announced that 50 American soldiers would enter Syria to advise anti-Assad rebels. The 2001 AUMF was cited as providing the legislative approval. Some Democrats in Congress then proposed reopening the AUMF, with the purpose of restricting the deployment of any U.S. troops.
Prior to Paris, Hillary Clinton had been unequivocally opposed, saying, “I will not put American troops on the ground to fight ISIS.” In the Saturday-night debate, she stood her ground, stressing that the war against ISIS “cannot be an American fight.” She also added, “I would like to see the authorization (AUMF) updated.” Clinton is eager to put the matter of war before the American Congress because she is confident she has the stronger hand.
“While Republicans generally support widening the scope of anti-ISIS activities, Democrats do not,” the Washington Post explained. “And any measure would need Democratic support to cross the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for approval.”
Thus Clinton can posture, while the Republicans in the Senate expressed frustration. “Democrats and a few Republicans,” Senator Lindsey Graham said ten days ago, “would object to authorizing a ground force.”
If the votes aren’t there, why debate a new authorization to use military force?
“I have been in agreement with the administration that the 2001 AUMF provides the authorities,” Senator Bob Corker explained. “To enter into a debate when you don’t see a pathway forward . . . does not seem like a prudent action to take.”
For the Republicans in Congress, is it now prudent or pusillanimous to take no action? In light of the Paris massacre, our national security requires that the pathway forward be re-examined. As a nation, we have to decide between two paths. First, continue careful, restrained bombing and hope that ISIS can be contained. This is Obama’s strategy. The day before the Paris massacre, he told ABC News that “we have contained them.” Second, create and fight inside a coalition to destroy ISIS on the ground.
The Republican leadership in Congress should propose a new AUMF, specifically including the development of a coalition to invade Syria and destroy ISIS. Such language would force a hard choice upon our elected representatives, upon the presidential candidates, and upon Obama, who would have to sign or veto the legislation. The ensuing debate would be fractious. Those opposed would accuse the Republicans of warmongering, a charge that could stick. A debate that degenerated into such demagoguery would not be healthy for the body politic. But we cannot avoid the threat posed by the Islamists.
Stop drifting. As a nation, we are drifting. Will our elected leaders in both parties elide the Paris tragedy, preferring drift to a debate that is certain to be both divisive and clarifying? If we do not have such a debate now, then when? Was the Paris massacre an act of war against a NATO ally, equivalent to 9/11 and demanding a similar overwhelming military response? Let the Congress propose authorizing a coalition ground force in Syria, to include Americans. Let’s find out where our elected leaders and presidential candidates stand on the basic matters of enemies, allies, national security, and war. Authorize our military to take the means necessary to win. Let President Obama explain why he vetoed that.
— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.