We keep learning more and more about the Paris attacks’ crucial details, and there’s surely more to come. Yet along with the early implications and lessons I discussed yesterday, another big trend is becoming crystal clear: President Obama’s verbal response so far has been remarkably tepid, and arguably confused. More serious, it’s contrasted strikingly with what we’ve heard from France’s President Francois Hollande about the strikes – which indicates that two of the most important countries in the coalition opposing the terrorists who are likely responsible see the threat in significantly different ways that could hamper any responses.
On Friday night, in the midst of the attacks, the French leader did refer to the assaults as a “crime.” But he emphatically changed his tune by Saturday. Those remarks described the attacks as “an act of war” that was “prepared, organised and planned from outside the country by Islamic State, but with help from inside.” He added, “We will be merciless toward the barbarians of Islamic State group.”
President Obama’s initial statement on Friday expressed appropriate outrage, and pledged America’s solidarity with France in “the fight against terrorism and extremism.” But he also continued a pattern of describing such events as law enforcement challenges, terming the attacks “crimes” and vowing to “do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice….” Although Obama mentioned the need to “go after any terrorist networks that go after our people,” his unwillingness “to speculate at this point in terms of who was responsible” prevented him from connecting these efforts to the military efforts he has authorized against ISIS.
Since then, the White House has issued statements agreeing with the “act of war” description. But these statements (so far) haven’t come from the president himself. Speaking on the eve of the summit in Turkey of the G-20 countries (the world’s twenty largest economies), Mr. Obama mentioned that “as a NATO ally [of Turkey’s] we have worked together to bring about pressure on ISIL” in order to “eliminate the environment in which ISIL can operate.” But he again mentioned “hunting down the perpetrators of this crime [in Paris] and bringing them to justice.”
Again, I don’t favor seeking ISIS’ military defeat, because even if it’s achieved, the terminally dysfunctional Middle East will soon enough serve up a comparable threat. Instead, U.S. military operations in the region should focus on keeping ISIS off balance long enough to hamper its capacity to carry out international operations until Washington can secure the border tightly enough to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorism.
But if the president does mean to fight ISIS abroad principally, he needs to figure out whether he’s going to be a commander-in-chief or a police chief, and work as effectively as possible with as many allies as he can. And as the Paris attacks make terrifyingly clear, time isn’t on his side.