November 16, 2015–Lots of you-know-what is flying in the wake of the ISIS attack in Paris. Here in the United States we have pundits speculating that how to deal with ISIS has supplanted all other issues in the political campaign for the next president. Mitt Romney, a loser in the last presidential race, advocates for “whatever it takes” to beat the hell out of the shadowy adversary. And here is James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, the Fearful Leader–who is now so afraid he’s willing to appear only as an anonymous source in the New York Times. The Paris attacks, Clapper says, are “a game changer.” He goes on, “We have to look hard at what happened in Paris, at the trajectory of the group and the potential threat it poses to the entire international community . . . . Paris shows that they can attack soft targets on any day, anywhere, including in any major American city.”
Clapper wants “a greater sense of urgency in how we go about trying to combat these kinds of attacks.” Great. The first thing we need is more forthrightness and much greater consistency. The intelligence official an anonymous source? As I’ve said before, Mr. Clapper is about scaring people. –And his “attack any day” comment does exactly that. But where is the consistency? The intelligence community said–and General Clapper has more recently denied–that CIA pulled people out of China after the Chinese hack of United States personnel records, which would have revealed the identities of CIA undercover agents who’d been issued security clearances. On ISIS more specifically, an investigation is currently underway into senior officers at Central Command suppressing intelligence of the surging radical group, substituting a complacent view instead.
As with the intelligence so with the policy. The United States was not going to intervene in Syria. Then it did. The U.S. was going to help Syrian defeat the Assad government. Then CIA and the Pentagon, each with their own programs, stopped short of providing effective aid out of fear of helping some other radical group. The U.S. professed itself to be against Assad but its strategy effectively helps him. President Obama denounces Assad’s chemical weapons and sets a red line where he’ll bomb if the Syrian government utilizes such munitions. Then Assad did that but Obama stayed his hand. Then, after not bombing, the U.S. begins to drop on Syria because of ISIS, not chemicals. More recently, with evidence ISIS has used chemicals, there has been no evident U.S. response. Washington declared it would send no troops to Syria. Another policy honored in the breach. And Obama pulled out of the Iraq war, so now he goes back in.
All this fighting has generated a massive wave of refugees, and at this writing it appears ISIS inserted some of its own militants into the flow. That’s a classic spook tactic which, if Fearful Leader did not expect it, then Clapper is even more of an idiot than I make him for. During the Cold War the Soviets and East Germans did that with the flow of displaced persons out of Eastern Europe and later East Germany. The Vietnamese inserted people in the refugee stream during the Southeast Asian troubles. The Soviets did that against the Afghan mujahedeen in the Afghan war of the 80s. Pakistanis have done it against the Indians and the Indians right back.
More useful is to unpack just what the potentialities are. The other day we asked if the various recent attacks were related–a multifront activity sort of like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. That seems to be true. Evidence being uncovered in Paris right now is confirming the ISIS link of some of the militant attackers. We’re at the point that the fair assumption is that infiltrators are past the checkpoints and able to move about to targets. The ISIS propagandists have done a good job of radicalizing citizens of other countries in place. This has been looked at as a recruitment mechanism for the war in Syria, but it’s better as a tool for mobilizing in-place helpers for militant fighters entering for the next link in this unrolling overseas offensive. To the degree that Fearful Clapper’s maunderings mean anything this is it.
But there are important distinctions between now and then. This is not Tet. ISIS militants do not possess global logistics, global financing, or an in-place network of cadres the way these things existed across South Vietnam during the war there. That adds up to something more like a special operation–like 9/11–a one shot deal. Unlike Vietnam, the adversary cannot strike at will and repeatedly. Capabilities may differ in certain specific locales, places like Beirut or Cairo, perhaps France or Britain with the culture wars in those lands in recent years. More likely the capability, once used, will be expended.
Also probable is the expiration of “sleeper cells.” That is, the massive security crackdown that has already begun, in search of information, will haul in so many fish that the resulting data will reveal such capabilities ISIS may have in the West that were not employed in the Paris attacks. Some sleeper cells may survive the security blanket but the much greater likelihood is that such networks as ISIS may possess will be significantly degraded.
Finally, look at the nature of the “target set”–unfortunately harsh language that represents the way military planners view reality. Bars and restaurants, a music concert venue, a sports stadium. The Estade de France, the highest profile target, also had some defenses, and there the militants failed completely. Places they succeeded had no protection at all. ISIS congratulates itself that it struck dens of iniquity, but the truth is it made lemonade out of lemons.
This is not the “game changer” that Fearful Clapper wants us to believe in. We are seeing a wave of one-off incidents, separated in time and locale, against innocents who bore no ill will. The most likely change in the game will be to stimulate political movements likely to demand intervention in Syria, or conversely to heat up culture wars in the West. Perhaps that is the true aim here. If so it is still misdirected, for Muslims oppressed as a result of resentments triggered by ISIS are just as likely to blame the Syrian militants.
Meanwhile, France has already made a start with a new wave of bombing in Syria. The United States will be right behind. Even Israel is jumping on the bandwagon, using the opportunity to curry favor with European states that have been scandalized by its policies in the Occupied Territories. But as discussed here on other occasions, the United States in particular, and the West in general, lack a coherent strategy that leads to an attainable goal in Syria. It is foolish to rush in without considering that. The other day I wrote that here it feels like the moment in the Vietnam war just before the Tonkin Gulf Incident, a time the pressure for escalation is palpable but the successful way forward is not. I want to repeat that judgment here.