Al Qaeda, border security, burden sharing, defense spending, Following Up, France, Francois Hollande, G20, Germany, ISIS, Middle East, migrants, NATO, Obama, Paris attacks, refugees, Schengen Zone, September 11, Syria, terrorism
Yesterday on Twitter, I asked folks whether they thought that last week’s Paris terrorist attacks would represent a turning point in global politics as big as September 11. I wasn’t too sure about the answer at that point; today I feel much more confident that Paris’ impact should – at least – be even greater, but that its impact will fade much sooner than it should.
There’s no question that the September 11 attacks were more spectacular, and killed many more people, than the Paris operation. But the latter worries me precisely because it was so low-tech, so un-spectacular – and therefore so much more easily repeatable. Clearly, there are many reasons that the use of hijacked civilian airliners as bombs hasn’t been repeated in the last 14 years. Air travel security has been greatly tightened all over the world – although the recent ISIS-claimed destruction of a Russian plane reminds us that gaps remain at various air nodes. But security – and intelligence – responses undeniably have been stepped up, and partly as a result, it’s likely that terrorists are much less interested in fighting “the last war.”
It’s also possible, however, that terrorists have concluded that the airliner bomb approach is simply too difficult, and that the risk-reward ratio is inadequate. First, think about the planning and equipment required for the Paris attacks: It’s not even close. Now think about the “reward”: The September 11 strikes were over in minutes. The handful of Paris attackers turned a major Western capital into a battlefield for hours. This tells me that repeats are much better bets.
Which brings up the likely effect on Western and global responses. It’s true that it’s been less than three days since Paris. But the early indications don’t point even to major shifts, much less wholesale changes. I don’t have the transcript yet, but I watched President Obama’s just-concluded press conference following the G20 summit in Turkey, and nothing could have been clearer than his conviction that he’s pursuing the right strategy, and that nothing more than a moderate escalation of anti-ISIS military operations is in store right now.
Certainly there was no mention of stepped up border security measures, which I have written are the keys to protecting the American homeland more effectively. In fact, Mr. Obama became most emotional when condemning (admittedly stupid) proposals to restrict admissions of Middle East refugees to Christians – despite his (reluctant) acknowledgment that security screening is required.
Not surprisingly, France’s reaction has been more substantial. French President Francois Hollande has just addressed a rare joint session of the country’s Parliament (itself a major departure from domestic political practice), is seeking to extend the state of emergency initially declared to three months, and has requested significantly new constitutional powers to deal with individuals deemed dangerous.
On Saturday, of course, Hollande had described the Paris attacks as an “act of war,” in contrast to President Obama’s continued tendency to view terrorism mainly as a law enforcement challenge. The French president also authorized a round of air strikes versus ISIS targets in the Middle East, and promised more resources for the country’s security forces. In addition, he’s urged the members of Europe’s visa-free travel zone – the so-called Schengen area – to tighten up their internal controls. (At the same time, the president of the European Commission has stated that he sees “no need for an overall review of the European policy on refugees.”)
But a New York Times op-ed this morning made clear how lax and paltry French – and other European – counter-terrorism efforts have been, and therefore how far they need to go to deserve the adjective “serious.” As reported by former senior Obama administration foreign policy aides Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, French and German spending on intelligence and counter-terrorism operations are the merest fractions of America’s. And these countries are located much closer to the Middle East breeding grounds of ISIS and similar groups.
Moreover, Hollande’s apparent decision to escalate French military efforts to defeat ISIS in the Middle East is reasonable, and budget figures are never perfect measures of military strength. But even though the Paris attacks have hardly been the first by the region’s extremists against European targets, the only European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to have met the alliance’s defense spending goals have been the United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, and Estonia. France and particularly Germany are among the foot-draggers. Will the Paris attacks spur much more energetic efforts? In the face of continued European economic weakness? Or will these countries ultimately continue their decades-long policies of relying mainly on the United States for protection?
Past isn’t always prologue. (If it was, we’d still be living in caves.) But the power of inertia and the temptations of free-riding should never be under-estimated. Nor should the determination of politicians – on either side of the Atlantic – to stick to failed policies. So the odds remain way too high that the Paris attacks will leave the United States and other major countries with the worst of both possible worlds – facing game-changing circumstances and more attached to the status quo than ever.