After Paris: leadership is lacking—and urgently needed

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The attacks by ISIS in Paris claimed at least 129 lives and wounded hundreds more. It came on the heels of the bombing of a Russian passenger jet, which killed all 224 people on board, and for which ISIS has claimed “credit.” A third ISIS suicide bomb attack in Beirut, about a week ago, left more than 40 dead. Taken altogether, these horrific incidents bring to mind elements of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor on a truly global scale. 

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before a joint session of Congress to denounce the attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the day before as a “date which will live in infamy.”  FDR asked for and got a formal declaration of war against Japan, and the United States was thrust into World War II.  Days after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush stood with first responders amidst the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center and called the attacks “an act of war.”

Sadly, while President Francois Hollande of France indeed called the ISIS attacks in Paris an “act of war,” President Barack Obama, the putative leader of the Free World, delivered a tepid speech at a news conference after the two-day G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, which utterly failed to rise to the seriousness of the current crisis.  Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist, described the demeanor of the president as “passive, annoyed and delusional.”  While the term “delusional” seems excessively harsh — “unrealistic” or “naive” would appear more accurate — Obama’s talk indeed seemed passive and annoyed.  He read his prepared remarks in a flat monotone, failing to show any passion or emotional urgency in his voice and body language.  He seemed to be sleepwalking, when the occasion required him to use all of the oratorical skills that he exhibited when he ran for president back in 2008.

Substantively, the president made it clear that he planned no change in the current U.S. approach towards his stated goal of “degrading, defeating and destroying ISIL.”  Just the day before the Paris attacks, the president told an ABC interviewer that ISIS had been “contained,” when it was clear that ISIS is far from contained if it is capable of downing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, where it has established a stronghold, and a suicide bomb attack in Beirut.  After Paris, to claim that ISIS has been contained, is absurd on its face.

To be sure there have been some encouraging developments in the fight against ISIS.  A U.S. drone strike is believed to have killed “Jihadi John,” the ruthless ISIS terrorist shown on videos beheading hostages, including American journalists and other innocent civilians.  There have also been some advancements by Kurdish Peshmerga troops, backed up by Americans, in retaking some of the towns and cities previously captured by ISIS.  But the events in Paris, and the strong possibility that similar attacks may follow on American cities, including Washington, D.C. and New York City, demand that more urgent action be taken, including, but not limited to the following:

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• A formal declaration of war against Islamic State not only by France but by NATO itself.  Under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, on which NATO is based, “an attack on one member state is an attack on all member states.” Such a declaration would compel the alliance to organize an international expeditionary force to take whatever military action is necessary to indeed defeat and utterly destroy ISIS, which has become the very embodiment of evil.  President George H.W. Bush assembled a similar broad-based coalition in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War.

• A unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution denouncing Islamic State and supporting appropriate military responses from the international community as well as formal indictments by the International Criminal Court of ISIS leaders and perpetrators of atrocities.

• A strong bipartisan resolution in Congress updating the existing authorization for the president to use military force as needed to achieve the goal of utterly defeating ISIS and its allies.

• Working with Hollande on his proposed coalition involving France, the United States and Russia in a concentrated and coordinated attack on ISIS strongholds and cells.  Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly conceded that a bomb indeed took down the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, such a three-party coalition within a broader constellation of nations could be effective.

• Re-energize the efforts to end the civil war in Syria in a plan that would include the ouster of President Bashar Assad as president and the creation of “safe enclaves” for the refugees and migrants who have been forced from their homes.

Yes, Obama’s tepid talk in Turkey was disappointing in its lack of conviction and substantive strategy changes needed to defeat ISIS.  But it is not too late for the United States and its allies—NATO, and yes, Russia—to come together to meet the clear and present danger which ISIS poses not only to the West but to world civilization itself.