As we mourn those who were murdered in Paris, we are asking ourselves: what can anyone do about ISIS?
In its communique taking credit for the massacre, ISIS declared that Paris is “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.” It added that the rock concert at the Bataclan was a celebration of perversity.
France has an identity problem. True enough, it has been bombing ISIS targets in Syria, but in World War II France seemed to duck the fight, preferring collaboration to military engagement. Ever since that time France has been working to eliminate the stigma. This suggests that France will be forced to strike back stronger and harder and more mercilessly, as President Hollande said yesterday, lest anyone have any illusions about its strength and resolve.
That also means that it will increase surveillance of its large and unruly Muslim population. There will be arrests and deportations. If the current Socialist government cannot react effectively, look for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to prevail in the 2017 elections.
Press commentary about what France should do now comes from media pundits and from officers who have real experience with the fight. It is, dare I say, mixed. Some are calling for dispassionate reflection. Others are calling for a violent counterattack.
Writing in the New Yorker Adam Gopnik advises us all to live our lives, not our fears. Apparently, he means that we should go about our business as though nothing happened. Of course, those who were murdered in Paris were doing just that, so it does not feel like the best advice. He is also suggesting that we should not over-react or become bellicose. If we were decadent before the attack, we should presumably still revel in our decadence. Obviously, this is head-in-the-sand-ism, guaranteed to set us up for the next assault.
In Gopknik’s words:
There seems a consensus in France this morning, like that here after our own assault, in favor of mass detentions and arrests—a logic that is easy to criticize at a distance, but will have overwhelming support in a country that just saw more than a hundred killed in a single night.
But there is also a will in France, familiar to New Yorkers, not to be annihilated, not to be turned by terrorism into a citizenry that can no longer recognize itself. New Yorkers learned that you can live your lives or your fears, and that it is always wiser to live your lives. Bernard Schalscha, writing this morning in the journal La Règle du Jeu (on whose editorial advisory board I sit), asked his countrymen to “wish for an immense ‘Not In Our Name’ by tens of thousands of Muslim men and women,” and “arrive at a gigantic élan of solidarity . . . that the French and immigrants share the same fight for democracy.”
If Gopnik imagines that a rally of French Muslims is going to solve the problem he is more naïve than I had thought. As for the idea that we should not become “a citizenry that can no longer recognize itself," he seems to be suggesting that by fighting back, by cracking down on certain elements that foment terrorism, French citizens will become other than who they were.
But, that leaves open the question of who they are. Is France a decadent nation in decline, too weak and too cowardly to defend itself? Or, is France a proud nation that refuses to allow a bunch of medieval maniacs to destroy its citizens or what it has built?
There are times when it is right to be angry. There are times when it is right to strike back. There are times when it is cowardly to pretend that nothing has happened. There are times when doing nothing signals a cultural pathology.
France itself is divided on the issue. In the neighborhood where the attack occurred members of the chickenshit left believe that it is all their own fault. One suspects that they also blame it all on Israel.
These people believe that they deserve what happened, that they are being punished for their crimes. Their minds have been overtaken by guilt, to the point where they are paralyzed into inaction. Don’t say that terrorism does not work… on the pusillanimous and the cowardly.
Ha’aretz interviewed some of the citizens of the target neighborhood:
It was hard to find anyone at this gathering who would say a bad word about the attackers, and expressions of patriotism were restrained. Perhaps it should be no surprise in this part of town. Most residents of the 11th arrondissement are what the French call “bobo,” bohemian and bourgeois, middle-class academics in their 30s and 40s with clearly leftist leanings. It’s a tolerant area, where migrants and minorities feel safe walking around. Among those who had assembled were several mixed-race couples. Now the restaurants and bars that they frequent every night were attacked and some of their friends were killed and wounded, and they were having a hard time reconciling this with their worldview.
Opinion on the left is clearly divided. A liberal like New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has a much better analysis of what needs to be done.. He supports military action that would destroy ISIS in Syria. And he knows that it cannot be done merely by using air power:
The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq. The barbaric terrorists exulting on social media at the blood they have spilled cannot be allowed any longer to control territory on which they are able to organize, finance, direct and plan their savagery.
An air war against ISIS will not get the job done; the Paris attacks occurred well into an unpersuasive bombing campaign. Major powers, including Russia and China, have vigorously condemned the Paris attacks. They should not stand in the way of a United Nations resolution authorizing military action to defeat and eliminate ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, have an interest in defeating the monster they helped create whose imagined Caliphate would destroy them.
Cohen also understands that the problem we are watching play out on the world stage is a crisis at the heart of Islam. He might have mentioned David Goldman’s analysis, to the effect that Islam is a failed civilization in the process of self-deconstructing, punishing those who have shown it to be a colossal failure.
Obviously, the threat is not just limited to ISIS. But that does not mean that we should do nothing:
Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Passivity is a recipe for certain failure. It is time, in the name of humanity, to act with conviction and power against the scourge of the Islamic State. Disunity and distraction undermined past military efforts to defeat the jihadis. Unity is now attainable and with it victory.
Cohen neglects to mention that such a battle requires leadership and that the leadership required can only come from one place: Washington. Good luck getting Barack Obama to sign on. After all, while Obama is not a Muslim, he holds basic sympathy with Islam and sees some validity in some of its positions. His policies feel more closely aligned with the views of the liberal leftist Parisians than with someone like Roger Cohen or even Francois Hollande. The Obama response to the events in Paris has been empathy mixed with an open door to Syrian refugees.
Beyond the pundits to those who have experience in the field, we can examine the views of an anonymous CIA veteran, reported by Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast:
Thus a CIA veteran with long experience hunting Osama bin Laden and trying to outmaneuver ISIS, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “Everybody is going to respond to this thing with solidarity, tying little ribbons on trees and that sort of bullshit,” when what’s needed, in his opinion is, “to drive a stake in their heart.”
How would you do that?
“Put together a force of 6,000 or 7,000 airborne soldiers and just take Raqqa. Don’t issue warnings. Don’t assemble tank columns. Train the force, then use it,” said this gentleman, a veteran of the clandestine services, but not of the military. “They have made Raqqa the capital of their state. Take it and you have changed the ground immediately. You can’t fight ISIS with baby steps, and what happened in Paris gives you the immediate rationale to do something strategic. Otherwise? They are winning.”
Again, can this happen without the support of Barack Obama? It seems unlikely.
Dickey also quotes a French anti-terrorism expert named Alain Bauer. Bauer takes it a step further. He does not want to get back in the business of occupying territory in the Middle East. Thus, he has a more radical approach:
Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and advisor to officials in Paris, New York and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground. But a war of attrition fought like the Battle of Paris this week has to be addressed at the source.
“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” Bauer told The Daily Beast.
What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.”
But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population.
Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”
But we have seen the deleterious effects of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would an occupation of Raqqa be different? Isn’t that what ISIS wants, to lure the West into a quagmire?
“ISIS wants us to conquer the territory, which is not what I said,” Bauer told The Beast. “We need to erase Raqqa.”
One notes that Bauer has the ears of French officials who are now planning their counterattack. Does the French military have the wherewithal to erase Raqqa? I do not know.
As for winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world, presidential candidate Marco Rubio suggests first that we attack the ISIS safe havens. He does not want to do so to gain territory but to conduct a psychological war by using a tactic that I have proposed myself on several occasions. Subject the terrorists to public humiliation; make them look weak and ineffectual:
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio said the terror attacks in Paris are part of "a civilizational conflict," and that Islamic terror needs to be confronted as that.
The Florida senator said Islamic terrorists think that "the entire world needs to believe in what they believe in, or you die."
Rubio said that the safe havens of ISIS must be targeted, namely in Syria.
"I believe we need to subject ISIS to high profile humiliating defeat," Rubio said, "meaning Special Operations attacks that are filmed, basically, so we can show the world that these are not invincible people."