The Duck of Minerva

Terrorism and the 2016 Campaign

14 November 2015

The Paris terror attacks have brought the issue to the fore in awful, dramatic fashion. It’s inevitable that the topic will feature in tonight’s Democratic debate and the wider campaign. With world leaders set to convene in Paris in a few weeks time for the global climate negotiations, French vulnerability to terrorism has taken on added significance.

While ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the United States, attacks on civilians are a more tangible security threat than potential peer competitors that politicians ignore at their peril. The attacks, which claimed the lives of more than 100 people, could have been much worse. One attacker purportedly tried to enter the soccer game and was turned back when security discovered his suicide bomb. He was only able to exact limited damage when he detonated outside the gates.

Over-reaction and retribution are distinct possibilities going forward. The scale of the French attacks will likely change the political calculus in France and here at home in ways that the Charlie Hebdo ones did not.

Were the Attacks a Sign of Strength or Desperation?

On my Facebook feed (which is an interesting phenomenon in its own right), there have been intense discussions about whether or not the Paris attacks demonstrate desperation on the part of ISIS or show a sign of strength. At this point, we have know way of knowing. Yes, ISIS has lost 25% of its territory but they still have the capability to pull off an attack that required significant coordination, organization, and training (though that might not be as onerous as we think). In an interview, Will McCants mooted both possibilities:

One type of explanation is that this is primarily about recruits and keeping momentum going. You could say that this is part of the broader struggle to displace al-Qaeda as the head of the global jihad — think of it as part of a competition with them for recruits. They’ve also been losing some territory, and are trying to mitigate those losses by focusing people’s attention abroad with a mind to attracting recruits.

Another explanation is that they want to deter further military action against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, so they are going after some of their primary enemies.

Or you could say that that they’ve had international terrorist intentions all along, but they never had the capability or the opportunity.

Any of those is plausible, so the challenge is for us trying to make sense of it on the outside. We just don’t know what’s going on in their own internal deliberation, and we might not know for years. If you look at the aftermath of 9/11, we didn’t know exactly why they had undertaken those attacks for years.

The Inevitability of Selective Compassion

At the same time, people have been discussing the selective compassion for France that was not extended to Lebanon or Iraq, which have also suffered attacks in recent days. We debated whether regime type, perceptions of sameness, affinity to France or Paris itself, or the fact that this attack is so unusual for France explains such disparate attention.

Even if it is somewhat inevitable that empathy is only selectively extended, I’d hope that the lesson is to consider our common humanity rather than berate people for showing solidarity with the French. At the very least, it’d far cry from the Iraq War-era circa 2003 when the United States was busy renaming “french fries” as “freedom fries.”

The Policy Going Forward

I was reluctant to write something last night as many people counseled that hot takes are often the least considered ones (though I have to say Seth’s post on this blog was thoughtful, probably because he’s not on Twitter!). I think the same goes for policy. The demand to do something, to take it to the enemy, are likely going to lead to reflexively bad policies, restrictions on immigration or ineffective bombing campaigns. At the very least, they will lead to intemperate rhetoric. As Micah Zenko cautions:

If military escalation is on the table, the West needs to think through this carefully. Steven Metz lays the issues out:

My main concern is that the policy response in the coming weeks and months may satisfy our collective desire for retribution but not be effective and worse lead to draconian shifts against freedom of movement and association that liberal societies hold dear.

In terms of the unfolding presidential campaign, my concerns mostly lie with the field of Republican contenders, currently led by candidates unfit to hold the presidency, namely Donald Trump, who is a venal and vile character, and Ben Carson, who is a genial and talented doctor in over his head. The Republicans stand a very good chance of winning in 2016, as parties rarely win three consecutive presidential elections. Now is the time for the Republican Party to coalesce around a grown-up, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, or more likely one-time Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later so that a more serious conversation about policy can happen. We need one.

Postscript: Having watched the Democratic debate (transcript here), I had this nagging sense that the Democratic contenders did not distinguish themselves on the topic of security.  I understand and respect the reluctance by Hillary to embrace the nomenclature of “radical Islam,” lest we reinforce the perception that there is war between Islam writ large and the West (Witness Marco Rubio’s evocation of a”clash of civilizations” today that comes dangerously close to that characterization). Hillary was wise to invoke George W. Bush’s early rhetoric that disavowed this as a war against Muslims but a war against violent extremism.

Still, despite the virtues of this response, I found other elements of her response wanting and likely to be seized upon by Republicans in the general election. She went further than President Obama to talk about defeating rather than containing ISIS. But, in terms of the specifics going forward, I was underwhelmed.  Other than providing “leadership,” Clinton seemed to be running a primary strategy to reassure dovish Democratic voters that nothing of the Paris attacks changed her views going forward:

But it cannot be an American fight. And I think what the president has consistently said– which I agree with– is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs, so that we can be supportive.

I don’t think that the American mood, even among Democrats is going to be all that reassured by this posture. This doesn’t sound like a credible plan to defeat ISIS but a holding pattern. Training Iraqis or Syrians seems substantively and politically a loser.

Fred Kaplan captured this in Slate in the title of his article “Hillary Clinton Missed Her Chance to Explain How She Would Defeat ISIS.” He wrote:

The question of the evening—of our time—is how to defeat ISIS, but Clinton, the candidate with the deepest résumé on foreign policy, never said what she would do beyond what President Obama is already doing. She seems to have made a calculation, in this and previous debates, not to draw big distinctions between herself and Obama (who remains very popular among the active Democrats who vote in primaries), but it would have been interesting to hear her articulate a single distinctive detail about her plan, and she didn’t do that.

That plan doesn’t have to be ground troops, and I certainly think considered reflection ought to ensure that there is no rush to do something counterproductive (though France has already unleashed air strikes on Raqqa). Still, at this point, if the negative effects of the Syrian conflict are not dealt with, the corrosive effects on European unity, tolerance, and the free movement of peoples may give rise to right-wing political parties, the return of sovereign borders, and xenophobia. The U.S. has a stake in preventing that from happening.

I think that given the weakness of the Democratic contenders in the primary, Hillary was lucky to get John Dickerson as a moderator because he didn’t pull any punches. At the very least, Saturday’s largely unwatched debate should motivate Hillary her team to develop a better answer. Certainly, when the Republicans come knocking, she’ll need to be ready.