National Security & Defense

A Serious War Calls for a Serious Strategy

Evacuating the injured near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, November 13, 2015 (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty)

On the very day that President Obama declared ISIS to be “contained,” it reached hundreds of miles outside the borders of its so-called caliphate and struck the heart of Paris. The dead and wounded are still being counted, but the death toll exceeds 120 and may continue to grow, with dozens reportedly injured critically.

This is what happens when terrorists are given safe havens, when they have time and space to recruit and train new fighters, and when they have time and funds to organize attacks. In short, the West forgot a principal lesson of September 11: that terrorists cannot be given respite.

In the last month, ISIS has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Beirut, downing a Russian passenger jet, and — now — a multi-pronged urban assault in the heart of one of the West’s great capital cities. It is promising to bring the war to the United States. While ISIS’s savagery is well known, it had largely been confined to its Middle Eastern strongholds. No more. ISIS can bring down airliners. It can strike Western cities.

The idea that ISIS could be “contained” was folly from the beginning. Every day that ISIS exists — resisting the world’s great powers — is another day that it recruits young fanatics from abroad, inspires jihadists in their home countries, or infiltrates its fighters into the great mass of migrants moving now from the Middle East through the open borders of Europe. Indeed, there are now reports that one of the attackers was registered as a refugee in October.

The Obama administration cannot persist in its present holding pattern, where escalations of the war against ISIS are measured by a few dozen troops “advising and assisting” in Syria, by slight upticks in pinprick air strikes, or by modest geographic gains by under-equipped Kurdish fighters.

#share#A serious war requires a serious strategy, one not hamstrung by absurd rules of engagement that grant enemy fighters known safe havens even in the midst of bombing runs, nor can it be bound by silly notions that President Obama has “ended” a war that is still burning hot and that we have been losing on this president’s watch.

That means defeating ISIS in the country where the United States has the most power and influence — Iraq. This begins with a more robust campaign from the air that is free from current overly restrictive rules of engagement and that hits every possible ISIS target. It means special forces operating on the ground in conjunction with our air power. It means buttressing Iraqi forces for the fight to retake Ramadi, and then Mosul, which could require thousands more U.S. troops. (The U.S. political debate focuses overwhelmingly on numbers of troops, although what is most important is to have a strategy first — then provide the resources necessary to carry it out.)  

#related#Syria, a quagmire of competing jihadist groups, is a much more complicated proposition. We should avoid the impulse to fall into the arms of the Russians and the Assad regime, whose blunderbuss tactics and strategic goal of entrenching the Alawite dictatorship will only fuel the Sunni resentment that provides such a powerful political boost to ISIS. Certainly, we can do more from the air and to support Kurdish allies, although there are limits to what those allies can accomplish, since they can’t realistically hold Sunni territory without stoking more sectarian conflict. 

Here at home, vigilance is obviously necessary. Americans have left the country to fight for ISIS, and dozens have returned. Moreover, ISIS has proven that it can inspire homegrown terrorists to launch “lone wolf” attacks on targets of opportunity. Much of the national-security debate over the past year has failed to take account of the growing threat: We crimped the NSA surveillance program, and the president is still hell-bent on closing Guantanamo.

Americans are understandably weary of war, but jihadists are still eager to fight, and wars do not end when one side grows tired of battle. Through its fecklessness and appeasement, the Obama administration has taught us all that bitter lesson. Withdrawal emboldens enemies and gives them new life.

Whereas President Obama deplores the “crimes” in Paris, as he calls them, French president François Hollande has vowed to wage “pitiless” war against ISIS. We must demonstrate the same resolve — not merely because France is our oldest ally, or because it’s a member of the same North Atlantic alliance that came to our aid after September 11, but because its enemy is our enemy, and we either defeat it now or watch our own streets run red with blood.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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