Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Treize Novembre

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
—President Obama in a January 2014 New Yorker interview, answering a question about advances by ISIS/ISIL in Iraq

“Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”
—President Obama on ABC on Thursday, answering a question about criticism of his ground strategy against ISIS

“I have never been more concerned. I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding. They’ve just put out a video saying it is their intent to attack this country.”
—Senator Dianne Feinstein on Monday on MSNBC

“We have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through… What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”
—President Obama on Monday in Turkey
It is all so depressingly familiar. And it is all so new and scary and different than before. This is life in 21st century Europe. Add Friday’s outrage in Paris to the list that includes Madrid 2004, London 2005 and Paris January 2015—not to mention the various smaller-scale attacks that have not been large enough to dominate international headlines for days.

It has been interesting to listen to all the media chatter in Ireland in the wake of the mass murder. Paris is geographically close to Ireland. From where I live, as the crow flies, Paris is about the same distance as from Seattle to Eureka, California. Lots of Irish people go to Paris all the time—on a holiday, for a weekend, for business. So an atrocity like this feels as though it has hit very close to home. In the discussions on TV and radio, there is nothing but sympthathy for the victims and condemnation for the perpetrators—at least initially.

After a day or two, though, you start to hear the occasional pundit drawing a lesson. These are what I call the “but” heads, the people who say things like, of course, there is never any justication for this type of violence but…

After the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, one began to hear, on both sides of the Atlantic, the usual disclaimers about violence always being wrong followed by the inference that insulting someone’s religion was intolerant and that the violence was, if not justifiable, then at least understandable. Indeed, weren’t the attackers provoked? Weren’t the cartoonists really kind of asking for it? Not that this justifies the violence, one is quick to add.

The November 13 attacks have not facilitated those sorts of rationalizations. You could actually Secretary of State John Kerry struggling with it yesterday at the U.S. embassy in Paris. “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo,” he said, “and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’ This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate.”

I find those remarks absolutely mind-blowing. Yes, he caught himself and backed away from calling the January attack legitimate, but it was obviously what was in his head. This might help explain why I have heard little, if any, confidence expressed here in the Obama adminstration’s foreign policy.

One point that has been made regularly is that none of this would not be happening if George W. Bush had not decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Like all such assertions, that one is impossible to either prove or disprove. The counter-assertion is that it was the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that created the vacuum that gave ISIS the opportunity to flourish. That is almost certainly true, but what is unclear is whether keeping U.S. forces in Iraq would have actually deterred ISIS or would have become a quagmire for the U.S. Assigning blame on past actions or inactions may make armchair analysts feel better but, unless you have a time machine handy, it is really only a useful exercise if it provides some wisdom as to what should be done in the short and long term going forward.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq definitely led to the violence that is currently bedeviling Europe. So then what? France’s answer is to double down on bombing ISIS positions in Syria. The usual voices on the left find this counter-productive, but otherwise there is widespread support. It is interesting to note that, when Israel has reacted similarly to attacks on its citizens, many of those now supporting France have criticized Israel. I guess it may come down to how close to home the attacks hit. That may explain why Britain’s new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacted by saying the West had “created a situation” that had contributed to the terrorist attacks on Paris and questioned the legality of last week’s strike on the militant dubbed “Jihadi John,” while Socialist Party leader François Hollande was busying ordering the bombs to be dropped.

The problem with merely dropping bombs is that, short of massive carpet bombing, they cannot win a war—and collateral damage is inevitable. And collateral damage can have the effect of growing support—either passive or active—for your enemy.

Any nation has the right to defend itself. But what does that mean in today’s world where the threat comes from individuals who are already inside the country, working at the behest of planners in the Middle East? Americans and Europeans may be loath to put boots on the ground in Syria, but ISIS clearly has more than a few boots on the ground in Europe.

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