When President Obama announced an international campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State last year, the organization was primarily a regional threat, inflicting its savagery on the people of Iraq and Syria and on hostages from other countries who were captured in the Middle East. But the coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and the downing of a Russian airliner suggest that the organization has embarked on a campaign of exporting terror globally.
In response to those spasms of wanton killing, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution Friday urging countries around the world to take “all necessary measures” to prevent terrorist acts by Islamic State, Al Qaeda and similar groups.
What should that mean for U.S. policy?
In an editorial after the Paris attacks, we counseled against a sudden lurch in what President Obama has called “a steady, relentless effort” against Islamic State, which so far has consisted of using U.S. air power and relying on local forces to fight the ground battles. We specifically rejected — and still oppose — a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that the U.S. deploy 10,000 troops to the region.
But the U.S. and its allies can and should increase the pressure on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recognition of the group’s expanding agenda, and without committing the U.S. to provide “boots on the ground.” The administration reportedly is considering tripling the 50 special operations forces Obama has said he will dispatch to Syria, and the Pentagon may increase the frequency and severity of U.S. airstrikes, especially those targeting oil facilities, which provide a source of revenue for Islamic State. (The administration should be careful, however, not to loosen restrictions designed to minimize civilian casualties.)
In a thoughtful speech last week on the presidential campaign trail, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for regional powers such as Jordan and Turkey to play a larger role in combating Islamic State. But she also suggested a more flexible role for the more than 3,000 U.S. forces now serving in Iraq as trainers and advisors. She would allow U.S. personnel to be embedded with Iraqi units and to help call in airstrikes. Admittedly, such a change in posture would increase the risk that U.S. forces would come under fire, but it also could improve the effectiveness of operations against Islamic State strongholds.
There are two main objections to the U.S. ratcheting up its military involvement. One is that it will be too incremental to make much difference in the war zone. That’s true of any limited use of U.S. power, yet it’s not a persuasive argument for the U.S. waging another ground war in the Middle East. A related concern is that, if these steps do fall short, Obama and his military advisors will eventually be tempted to escalate further. This is the familiar “quagmire” argument, and it can’t be blithely dismissed. But it’s also a rationale for taking no action, ever. A better safeguard against that kind of escalation would be for Congress to belatedly adopt an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Islamic State that would hold Obama to his promise that he won’t deploy combat troops in the region.
Clinton and many of the Republican presidential candidates have gone further, calling for the creation of no-fly zones to prevent the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad from assaulting civilians and opponents from the air. The problem with this proposal is that it would be difficult to establish such areas safely without the cooperation of Russia, which also is conducting airstrikes in Syria. That underlines the importance of the United States continuing to work with Russia and other countries to bring about a political transition in Syria that preserves government institutions there while giving the Syrian people the opportunity to choose new leadership. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been pursuing that objective in talks with representatives of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries, although they’ve yet to bear fruit — a reflection of how difficult it will be to persuade Assad’s backers to agree on a timetable for his exit.
Finally, reducing the influence of Islamic State also will require efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters to the Middle East, prevent the radicalization of young people and block the funding of terrorist organizations. Military force is an important part of the equation — especially when it comes to depriving Islamic State of territory from which it can instigate attacks — but it will not, by itself, counter the group’s influence.
Obama has been criticized for comments that seemed to minimize the threat posed by Islamic State, including his declaration a day before the Paris attacks that the group had been “contained” (a reference to its failure to gain control over additional territory). Whatever fault one may find with his words, Obama has made an increasingly serious effort to counter Islamic State, even when that involved military action that he once might have opposed. That doesn’t mean, however, that more can’t be done.
This article was from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.