We now live in a post-Paris world. And the question, after the unspeakable horror of the attacks, is just what that means.
It must be obvious to anyone paying attention that ISIS is hoping not just for a strong reaction but for an overreaction. That’s why the ISIS brand of terror is nearly always terror at its most intentionally provocative.
Overreaction brings recruits. Horror brings recruits. A beheading video demands a response. Destroying iconic pieces of past civilizations demands a response. As Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst, wrote in The Washington Post, the attack on Paris was a trap for Europe and its right-wing anti-immigrant parties, with ISIS expecting a crackdown on innocent Muslims already living there and a movement that would make the current refugee crisis even worse.
In America, the most surprising takeaway from the Democratic debate Saturday night was that the ever-prepared Hillary Clinton did not have a sound-bite-ready plan for what to do about ISIS in the post-Paris world.
Instead, she stumbled on whether the Obama administration had been slow to recognize the danger of ISIS — of course it had – and allowed herself to get caught up in a discussion of her long-ago vote on the Iraq war and the semantical difference between “radical jihad” and “radical Islam.”
What it showed, as much as anything, is just how difficult the question is to answer. If there’s anything we should have learned in the post-9/11 world, it’s that nearly every response we’ve tried has had its own problems.
By Sunday, Clinton was back in form, saying it was America’s role to pull our allies “off the sidelines” on ISIS and into the fight. She was calling for American leadership, without fear of anyone asking the follow-up question of where that leadership might take us.
What Clinton did know, and from the start, was what not to say. Fortunately for her, if not for America, the many Republicans in the presidential field were all too ready to fill that gap, walking right into Gambhir’s trap.
We can start with the GOP co-leaders. Donald Trump, when not saying the attack was about gun control, was reiterating his blame-Obama-first, no-refugee positions. Ben Carson said that America needed to do a better job of creating a coalition to join the battle. But when asked three times by Chris Wallace whom he would call to help create the coalition, Carson seemed to have no idea. Finally, he offered “all of the Arab states” and “all of our traditional allies.” On Twitter, this was being called the Sarah Palin response.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, said we were being too careful in our bombing and that we should worry less about killing innocent civilians. No, he really said that, and he didn’t stop there. He then went out of his way to make sure this was being interpreted as a Christian vs. Muslim battle. Cruz said that we should not allow any Muslim refugees from Syria into the country, no matter how deserving, saying the idea was “lunacy.” He said Christian refugees, on the other hand, presented no “meaningful” risk to America and should be welcome. He didn’t say how we would be able to tell the difference between Christian and Muslim, presumably because he’ll never have to actually make that choice.
From the serious candidates, Jeb Bush showed his original answer on his brother’s war in Iraq was his real answer. He is now saying it’s time to declare war on ISIS and if that means American troops, then that means American troops. He offered up a list of actions, including a no-fly zone, which could, of course, mean a possible confrontation with Russian planes, but I didn’t notice any exit strategies.
Bush also said that the ISIS attack was a part of an “organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.” Of course, ISIS has no ability to destroy Western civilization. It has the ability, sadly, to (apparently) blow up a Russian plane, ignite killing bombs in Beirut, and attack Parisians in nightclubs and restaurants.
Marco Rubio, meanwhile, took us back to pre-Iraq-war days and called the battle with ISIS a “clash of civilizations.” In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart takes apart that idea. ISIS, he points out, is not a civilization, but rather a self-declared and unrecognized state in parts of Iraq and Syria. You can extend the argument and say the war is against radical jihadists or radical Islamists – take your choice if you must — but they are not civilizations either.
Rubio goes on to make the old argument that they “hate us because of our values.” He says the attacks on the West are about freedom of speech and tolerance and diversity and women driving cars. He doesn’t say, Beinart points out again, why ISIS would then blow up a Russian plane and why it would be at war, say, against undemocratic Syria.
None of this is to say that there isn’t real urgency in taking on ISIS. The urgency may lead to real negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on how to end the Syrian civil war. France will take a leading role. The coalition, meantime, will grow. And the next president will almost certainly be faced with what to do next.
Photo credit: Klovovi, Creative Commons, Flickr.