By releasing the grisly videos of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, ISIS has altered the political landscape here and across the Middle East.
America is on fire.
“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. … They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham calls ISIS an “existential threat.”
Even Rand Paul has caught the war fever: “If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek Congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”
Polls show Republicans turning back toward interventionism. Joe Biden, among the more doveish in the Obama camp, says we are going to chase ISIS to “the gates of hell.”
Why would ISIS show themselves engaged in what decent men regard as barbarities, such as the beheadings of innocents and the mass execution of Syrian and Iraqi prisoners, with their hands tied behind their backs?
Though undeniably evil, the men of ISIS are not stupid. And our reaction is playing directly into their hand.
America’s recoil, which revealed to the world how the United States has been wounded, enraged and alarmed by ISIS’ savagery and success, sends to the most extreme of America-haters in the Islamic world a clear message.
Given our horrified and hyperbolic reaction, ISIS can credibly make this boast to the jihadists from Nigeria to the Hindu Kush, from Libya to Iraq, from Somalia to Syria:
“ISIS is the enemy the Great Satan fears and hates most. ISIS is the Islamist organization that strikes fear into NATO. Not al-Qaida, not Boko Haram, not Ansar al-Sharia, not the al Nusra Front â€” ISIS. If you would join the climactic battle for the future of mankind, if you would be in the front lines of the martyrs’ brigades changing the world and creating the caliphate of the Prophet, join us. ISIS wants you!”
Thanks to the West’s stunned and shocked reaction, ISIS has eclipsed al-Qaida. America daily confirms it. ISIS is today receiving the attention Osama once got for bringing down the twin towers and inflicting the worst blow to America since Pearl Harbor.
Unfortunately, what we view as horrifying, our worst enemies in the Islamic world view as the mark of authenticity, of uncompromising faith.
But while our natural and normal response to these videos is hot-blooded, hopefully, in our retribution, we will be more cool-headed than we have been in the recent past.
U.S. policy should be designed to do the maximum damage to ISIS and the least damage to us. Which means we ought not plunge back into Iraq or drop the 82nd Airborne into Syria. That is what ISIS seeks, to be seen by the Islamic world engaging American soldiers on Islamic lands.
The Turks have 400,000 men under arms. Assad has hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The Kurds have thousands of fighters. Iraq has hundreds of thousands. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of planes.
No need for U.S. boots on the ground.
What course should the United States pursue?
While President Obama may not have a strategy yet for Syria, his strategy in Iraq is succeeding. After its sweeping gains following the capture of Mosul, ISIS has suffered four straight defeats.
The move into Kurdistan has been halted. The Mosul dam has been retaken from ISIS. The Yazidis on Mount Sinjar were rescued from ISIS. The Turkmen in Amerli were rescued by Kurdish peshmerga, Shia militia that Americans fought years ago and the Iraqi army.
Moreover, the Kurdish PKK, whom we regard as terrorists, and military officers of Iran were apparently among the forces helping inflict the defeats on ISIS, along with the decisive use of U.S. air power.
In short, a coalition is forming in Iraq that can provide the ground troops for the steady attrition of ISIS and recapture of the Sunni lands it has taken, while the U.S. strikes from the air.
Syria is another matter.
The United States has to ask itself whom do we prefer in Damascus: Bashar al Assad or ISIS? For in the near term, these are the only realistic options.
Second, if ISIS is the main enemy, the principal enemy, the enemy with whom reconciliation is impossible, are we prepared to work not only with Assad, but his allies â€” Iran, Hezbollah, the PKK, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for the defeat of ISIS?
But before President Obama takes any action in Syria, he should force Congress to vote both to authorize and to set the limits of such action.