The choice between Obama’s strategy of minimal effort against ISIS, and taking the fight to ISIS right now in a major way, is to some extent a trade-off between an elevated short-term risk of civilian casualties and an elevated short-term risk of military casualties. Of course, Obama would say that’s a false choice, because occupying parts of the Middle East “permanently” will not make us more secure, and will (he would say) make us less secure. There may be some truth to this negative feedback effect, but the basic insight of invading Afghanistan after 9/11 remains inescapably sound: make the enemy expend their resources in a struggle for survival, and they will have fewer resources to kill civilians in our own cities. The long-term strategy of “ultimately” destroying ISIS, by depriving them of what they need to survive in the long term, presupposes that in the short term you are depriving them of what they need to operate.
It should be patently obvious that Obama’s strategy of “degrading” ISIS (which, cleverly enough, succeeds even if we degrade them only a tiny little bit) is doing virtually nothing to deprive ISIS of what it needs to operate or what it needs to survive. It may be true, as Obama boasted recently to ABC, that ISIS is contained — on the ground in Iraq and Syria. But that’s irrelevant because operating from an undisturbed safe haven which includes Syria and its enormous pipeline of refugees — a pipeline that gives it access to all parts of the West — ISIS can strike anywhere at anytime.
The way Obama has framed this (“we have always understood that this will be a long-term campaign“) is merely a cover for inaction, meant to make the predictable result, namely nothing, appear inevitable regardless of strategy. That rhetoric should not distract from the deeper implications of his policy choices. Whether he realizes it or not, his aversion to an effective strategy against ISIS, including boots on the ground if necessary, essentially boils down to a preference for civilian casualties here at home over military casualties abroad. That’s what the Paris attacks reveal.