What’s the least bad option on ISIS? Let’s ask a French Muslim 12-year-old
Note the question is not “what’s the best option” for the U.S. in response to the Paris attacks by the Islamic State that left 129 people dead. Because there are no good options. There never have been. But the worst option is overreaction, whether that involves fear, a stepped-up military response, or closing U.S. borders.
In his column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman reminds readers that the Paris attacks represent “an organized attempt to sow panic.”
“Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness,” Krugman writes. ISIS “isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war.”
ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) has a habit of taking credit for any and all acts of terrorism to make it look more powerful. On Australian television, Waleed Aly, host of a show called The Project, called ISIS “weak.”
“There is a reason ISIL still want to appear so powerful, why they don’t want to acknowledge that the land they control has been taken from weak enemies, that they are pinned down by air strikes or that just last weekend they lost a significant part of their territory,” he said on The Project. “ISIL don’t want you to know they would quickly be crushed if they ever faced a proper Army on a battlefield.”
Instead, ISIS wants people to fear them and get angry, he said. “If you are just someone with a Facebook or Twitter account firing off misguided messages of hate, you are helping ISIL. They have told us that. I am pretty sure that right now none of us wants to help these bastards.” You can watch his analysis here.
It’s easy for presidential candidates to spout off about how tough they’d be if they were in charge. Real estate mogul Donald Trump thinks we should “seriously consider” closing mosques in the U.S. and said having more people carry guns would have avoided bloodshed, as if any Jack Bauer wannabe with a handgun could counter a military assault by gunmen with AK-47s. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson talked about using “big frontal lobes” to formulate a solution, even though in a Fox News interview, he couldn’t name a single U.S. ally to call on to form an international coalition. Former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush called the attack a “war on Western civilization” and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the attack a “clash of civilizations.” Oh, and tearing up the Iran nuclear deal will help, too.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says he sees “another 9-11 coming” and wants to send U.S. troops to the Middle East, calling for President Obama and Congress to act. Gee, Senator, last time I checked, you were still in Congress. How about sponsoring a war resolution yourself? Oh, that’s right — everyone in Congress is too chicken to take an actual war authorization vote.
We do have to give Graham some credit. At least Graham said on the Today show that “I’m running for president, but I’m here today to tell the president that if you need my help you have it.” (No wonder he’s running so poorly in the GOP presidential race when he says he actually would be willing to help Obama.) Graham also referenced funding cuts to the FBI, CIA, and NSA. “We bear some blame for creating the perfect storm for another 9-11,” Graham said. “I’m urging members of Congress [to] up our budget so we can have better intelligence and hit them before they hit us.”
Republican governors are tripping over each other to announce that under no circumstances will their states accept any Syrian refugees. So far we have governors from Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas slamming the door; it’s hard to keep up with the list. It’s worth noting, however, that these GOP governors are whistling in the dark. The Refugee Act of 1980 gives the federal government the authority to accept refugees under the president’s discretion, and it spells out terms of local and state governments’ “sponsorship.” UPDATE: The governor total (it includes one Democrat) is now up to 27.
Several GOP candidates have called for closing U.S. borders to any Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz wants to establish a religious litmus test to let only Christians in. President Obama, in remarks from the G-20 Summit, was having none of it, saying “we don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
“Slamming the doors in [refugees’] faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said. Syrian “refugees are the victims of terrorism. The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism … they are parents, they are children, they are orphans. It is very important that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”
Middle East expert Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, suggests that there’s an element of piracy in ISIS’ Paris attacks. He describes his analogy in a post on his blog, Informed Consent.
“If we think of the armored vehicles, Humvees, and other conveyances Daesh captured from the Iraqi army at Mosul as analogous to pirate ships, and of the towns they have taken over as island settlements, we can see that Daesh functions as desert pirates,” Cole writes. “They captured oil refineries and smuggle gasoline and kerosene (black gold) to Turkey. They take hostages for ransom and store them in their desert ports until they receive payment.
“With regard to foreign hostages, if they aren’t paid, as is typically the case with U.S. hostages, they execute them very publicly so as to increase the likelihood of payment for the next hostages. They actively seek hostages as a means of money-making. They also capture young women and engage in human trafficking and forms of sex slavery, just as the pirates used to. And, they loot conquered populations, just as the pirates did.”
But there’s a big risk, Cole points out. “The Paris attacks are clearly a dangerous tactic for a state with territory and a return address.”
The U.S. and its allies have launched over 7,000 air strikes against ISIS. One U.S. serviceman was killed in the rescue of 70 ISIS prisoners who were reportedly going to be killed soon. U.S. forces are trickling into Iraq and Syria. These are not the actions of a disengaged administration.
But more boots on the ground? Who’s going to sign up for that? Which children of which senator or congressman?
Take away ISIS’ oil revenues? U.S. and now French forces are already bombing ISIS oil supply lines, but underground sales through Turkey still go on.
Increased intelligence? Certainly, although that will always trigger a backlash in the area of privacy rights. We’ll never hear about what has been stopped because of intercepted intelligence about ISIS.
Stop the flow of refugees? That would be like putting a black hood on the Statue of Liberty.
An American friend who lives in Paris shared an experience of a teacher friend in Paris, whose 12-year-old Muslim student, Fatima, gave her opinion in class today.
“I’m sad and angry,” Fatima said. “Sad because of all the dead, sad because they attacked innocent people who weren’t doing anything wrong — just living, having fun, and talking to each other. Angry because yet again there’s going to be an amalgam about Muslims and terrorists. I’m a Muslim. I have nothing to do with these crazy people who kill and therefore who sin because life is sacred.”
Another student said France needed to be “ruthless” in bombing Syria in response, although “we can never kill them all.” Fatima’s response: “The Republic shouldn’t be ruthless, that’s not what it’s about. It should educate and protect. I don’t like the word ruthless — it’s like we’re saying that the Republic was going to become terrorist, too.”
Here’s Krugman again: “So what can we say about how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult trade-offs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad. And it was always obvious that sometimes a terrorist attack would slip through.”
So there’s the dilemma: No good options. Politicians who claim to have easy answers are speaking in ignorant sound bites. Listen to them at your peril.