The terror attacks in Paris on November 13 have, at least for the moment, concentrated the minds of senior administration officials on how to address the myriad challenges posed by ISIS, which is perceived to be a growing threat to US national-security interests at home and abroad.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter flatly declared that “we’re at war” with ISIS. Carter, appearing alongside the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the committee that the administration plans to deploy special operations forces to hunt down ISIS leaders in Syria along with a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” in Iraq which will work to “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence,” all the while bringing the fight to ISIS strongholds.
There are several problems with Carter’s formulation of the problem, as well as with his proposed solution.
If we are truly at war, as Carter claimed, then he and President Obama have some explaining to do since this new war is being waged in the absence of either UN or congressional authorization (the 2002 AUMF cannot reasonably be said to apply nearly 14 years after its initial passage against a group, ISIS, that didn’t then exist).
When pressed to defend his claim that we are at war, Carter hedged a bit, and allowed that, while perhaps it isn’t technically so, “it feels that way to our people.”
Yet these “feelings” have given rise to a solution which breaks President Obama’s pledge not to commit ground forces against ISIS. And as for Carter’s intention to use this new “expeditionary targeting force” to free hostages, we might reasonably ask if we are about to expend American lives on rescuing foreign nationals or members of the mythical moderate Syrian opposition, which is mainly composed of members of the radical Islamist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
Meanwhile, the administration and the Congress are tenaciously clinging to their demand that Assad leave the stage, because, in the words of California Democrat and ranking committee member Adam Smith, “Assad fuels ISIS.” If that is true then it would follow that if we remove Assad, ISIS will either (a) pack it in and call it a day; (b) renounce terror and join a ruling coalition with the “moderate” Syrian opposition; or (c) collapse once denied Assad as an enemy to rally against.
Knowing what we now know about ISIS, do any of these scenarios logically track?
As the hearing on Tuesday made clear, politicians and policymakers have once again fallen prey to the temptation to look “tough” in the face of Islamic extremism. Indeed, Carter justified the deployment of new ground forces by claiming that it “puts enemies on notice that they don’t know at night who might be coming in the window.” This is rhetoric lifted from a bad episode of Homeland or 24.