November 18, 2018

The right response to Brussels

Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels make one thing abundantly clear: We need someone in charge who knows what he or she is doing.

When it comes to ISIS, I’m not convinced President Barack Obama has proven he’s the man. Is Hillary Clinton the woman?  Or John Kasich the man? 

Can it possibly be Ted Cruz, whose strategy is to turn Raqqa, the capitol of the so-called Islamic State, into a parking lot, killing every man, woman and child for miles around?

Or what about Donald Trump?  After the Islamic terror attacks that so far have claimed 30 lives and left hundreds injured, he called for instituting waterboarding and torture and, if I heard him correctly, not taking beheading off the table.   Generals and intelligence officials have already publicly warned that his ideas will endanger America and American soldiers, so naturally he keeps doubling down on them.

Then who? And what?

I keep going back in my mind to a near perfect scene in the last season of TV’s “Homeland” in which a group of American officials asks the handsome, deep undercover CIA operative,  Peter Quinn, “Is our strategy working?”

“What strategy?” Quinn shoots back.  There is silence. “You tell me what our strategy is, and I’ll tell you if it’s working.”

More silence.  Tumbleweeds seem to blow across the conference table.  Quinn assures the government officials that ISIS has a strategy to kill the infidels and make the world pure for the caliphate (okay, it’s really a goal, not a strategy, but it’s a damn good speech).  What,  Quinn asks again, is America’s strategy?

The scene works because all of us who are outraged with ISIS’s continued existence in Syria and Iraq and its unceasing attacks across Europe sense that those same tumbleweeds are blowing across real meetings in our real capitol. And it's not like they couldn't have seen this coming.

Five years ago New York Times columnist Tom Friedman explained that the Syrian civil war was different than what we had seen happen elsewhere in the Arab world.

“This is a fight to the death now,” Friedman wrote in May 2011, “and it’s the biggest show on earth, for one very simple reason: Libya implodes, Tunisia implodes, Egypt implodes, Yemen implodes, Bahrain implodes — Syria explodes.”

Friedman got only one thing wrong.  He wrote, “breakdown in Syria would change the whole Middle East overnight.”

Now we see he was off by a continent.  The Syrian explosion has blown up across France as well. And Belgium, and the EU, and San Bernardino. And I don’t know about you, but nothing gives me confidence we won’t be adding more names to that list soon.

Am I scared? No. Like Peter Quinn, I’m really, really mad.

ISIS is still 20,000 twisted 20-somethings hunkered in desert hovels and cruddy apartments, dying to be important.  Their leadership is more sophisticated than that, but hardly invincible.

Yet Obama seems unwilling to recalibrate a strategy that is based on the idea that we can strangle a rat by gripping its tail.   Eventually it will die, but not until it has twisted  about and bitten and clawed us one too many times.

In “Homeland,” Peter Quinn offered the clueless bureaucrats his strategy: Send in 200,000 troops backed by 200,000 teachers and doctors—which the bureaucrats laughed off.  In that case, he said, the only other option is to  “press reset”–  meaning,  bomb them Ted Cruz style. (Though frankly, I’d feel more secure if instead of Ted Cruz the person in charge were the actual actor who plays Quinn, or any of his writers, or the craft service guy.) 

There are other strategies, of course.  

Then-Secretary of State Clinton’s preferred plan of establishing a well-fortified safe zone close to ISIS from which to launch incessant attacks and provide security to internally displaced Syrians and Iraqis still makes sense—and was likely the best choice all along. 

As for the actual fighting, in January the journal Military Times reported on a new American strategy of increased battlefield presence and conventional war-fighting, but quoted officials that, “it would take years to execute.”  Years? Really?  Imagine if Israel, faced in the 1990’s with the same level of street bombings that are now wracking Europe, instituted a strategy that would end those bombings in some indefinite amount of  “years.”  There would be no Israel.  

Terrorism isn’t designed to defeat a country, but to shred its social fabric, which includes leading it to elect demagogues like Trump who promise toughness but haven’t a clue how to deliver.   

No: time is of the essence.  Obama needs a strategy on steroids. He must make the argument to Congress and the American people that it is worth the risk and the resources to double down on this military solution, to cut the time to “execute” to far less than years.

That’s the way to defend Brussels, and the homeland.