Ever since the U.S. military campaign against ISIS began in 2014, Pentagon officials have said the U.S. has time on its side. Rather than an invasion, officials have opted for methodical and incremental moves against the threat. "We must maintain strategic patience going forward," Army General Lloyd Austin, overseeing the anti-ISIS campaign as the chief of U.S. Central Command, said last fall. "The campaign to destroy [ISIS] will take time."
But the recent spate of suspected terrorist attacks, including a coordinated assault on Paris Friday and the destruction of a Russian airliner over Egypt, now threaten to fray that strategy, as western nations realize that the distant war can cause significant damage at home. Future attacks—especially if they happen on U.S. soil—may find that the U.S. public has run out of patience, strategic or otherwise.
The Paris attacks represent "an assault on our common human dignity," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said late Friday. "As NATO allies, as leaders of the counter-[ISIS] coalition, as nations working shoulder to shoulder from West Africa to the Indian Ocean, the United States and France will only strengthen our resolve."
But mere resolve, in the face of domestic slaughter, is untenable. The key for leaders U.S., France, Russia and other states targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, isn't to be stampeded into action, but to assess accurately the threat it poses and then develop a strategy to deal with it. Then they must convince their populations to support the plan.
After 3,000 died on September 11, 2001, an uneasy lull began. Terrorist attacks from Sunni radicals still occurred, but on a smaller scale and usually overseas, far from major Western targets. That tense hiatus now seems to be ending, following the destruction of Russian airliner over Egypt two weeks ago that killed 224, and Friday night's slaughter in Paris that killed more than 125.
No one should under-estimate the difficulty in curbing attacks by so-called "lone wolves." But the attacks on the airliner over the Sinai and in Paris were conducted by packs, not lone wolves. And they are succored by a fledgling self-declared caliphate that inspires them.
A report from Paris Saturday morning that one of the dead assailants had a Syrian passport only makes it more clear that such rampages are unlikely to end any time soon. French President Francois Holande declared Saturday that the Islamic State was responsible. “It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish,” he said.
The U.S. has long sought to fight terror on the cheap. Initial projections of how long the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would take, and how costly they would be in both blood and treasure, fell woefully short. A scant 1% of Americans donned their nation's uniforms to fight, and—because the political class lacked the guts to do otherwise—this handful was recycled back to war repeatedly, risking their physical and mental health. The other 99% were encouraged to keep shopping, as the nation's politicians saddled their children and grandchildren with much of the estimated $4 trillion cost of the wars.
Congress, meanwhile, has simply abdicated its role in the fight, allowing Obama to wage an anti-ISIS campaign under a congressional authorization approved shortly after the 9/11 attacks. That way, lawmakers can sit on the sidelines and carp when things go wrong, as they always do in a military campaign. But that attitude also sanctions a hands-off approach among U.S. citizens: if Congress has no skin in the game, why should the American public?
Congress will now face new pressure to act like the Founding Fathers intended under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, and debate the wisdom of declaring war on the Islamic State. If nothing else, the recent attacks put the issue of Western strategy front and center.
Strategic patience can continue, even in the face of more terrorist attacks, but only with consent of the Western populations who now find themselves under attack.