France's 9/11

Will Europe learn from America's mistakes?


There are many different American contexts in which one might hear the bellicose patriotic warning, "The red, white, and blue is coming to get you." A speech by a Muslim religious leader at a Brooklyn candlelight vigil is generally not one of those contexts.

Yet that's what I heard from Mohammad "Mo" Razvi, the executive director of a Muslim community group called the Council of Peoples Organization, at an interfaith ceremony in Carroll Park on November 15. It was two days after gunmen and suicide bombers ripped a bloody hole through the heart of French civil society, massacring 130 people in attacks at a rock concert, a soccer stadium, and several restaurants. We were gathered with more than 100 people in my neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which has become the Brooklyn capital of French expatriates (including my wife), in part due to the dual-language program at the public elementary school across the street.

"We pray to God for justice and for these individuals to be taken off this earth," Razvi said, in what was by far the most saber-rattling of the remarks various local religious and political leaders made that evening. "If it's going to take our communities coming together and our governments to come together internationally, so be it."

Razvi's comments defy the stereotypes that were common back when Rep. Walter Jones (R–N.C.) was known not as the anti-war stalwart that he is today but as the congressional progenitor of the shameful "freedom fries" micro-moment, in which french fries were renamed in congressional cafeterias because America's oldest ally was seen as too cravenly pacifist to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only is the French Socialist government now leading the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), but some of the "moderate Muslims" that hawks are always urging to denounce Islamic terrorism are sounding more hawkish than many modern Republicans.

So much has changed in the world since 2001, and so much of it for the worse, that Americans have had a hard time fully grappling with the reality that this was France's 9/11. An international terrorist organization, in a protectorate carved out from a failed state (in ISIS' case, several failed states), reportedly coordinated and took credit for a brutal and deadly act of war designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties in the cultural heart of a successful civilization. The French reaction—and foreign policy challenge—is directly analogous to how America faced Taliban-era Afghanistan in September 2001.

The American discussion about France's choices has mostly clustered around two poles: hyperinterventionism and noninterventionism. Donald Trump, who has as good a claim on America's id in 2015 as any politician (God help us), vowed in early December that "I would knock the hell out of ISIS, I would hit them so hard," adding: "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families."

Representing the other pole, Sheldon Richman declared in a November piece at reason.com that if "Americans and Europeans want safer societies, they must discard the old, failed playbook, which has only one play—more violence—and adopt a new policy: nonintervention."

A third way, represented most by the Obama administration, muddles somewhere between the two extremes: air strikes against ISIS, but not nearly as many as were deployed in prior Mideast conflicts, and no "boots on the ground" (except those worn by special-operations types, who are somehow exempt from the cliché). "This is a worldwide fight and America must lead it," Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton declared the week after the Paris attacks. And yet, "If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission."

When people talk about "lessons learned" over the past 15 years of unhappy U.S. foreign policy, there is a kind of reverse Goldilocks effect. That is to say, one group of people thinks the lesson is that we shouldn't have intervened militarily in the first place, the other group thinks that our military should have stayed longer and fought harder, while those who actually hold power occupy a middle ground that satisfies precisely no one.

But when thinking about France's 9/11, it's worth remembering the choices we made about our own. Only one member of Congress voted against authorizing military force on September 14, 2001, in a resolution that was universally understood as greenlighting the Afghanistan war. That member was not Walter Jones, not even Ron Paul, but the liberal Berkeley Democrat Barbara Lee. And early on, the Bush administration made the commitment—first in Afghanistan, then in the non sequitur of a follow-up war in Iraq—to follow what has come to be known as the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

The United States broke the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan in less than three months. Since then, more than 2,200 military servicemen and women have died in that wretched country, while taxpayers have poured more than $800 billion into the increasingly ineffective effort to build a post-Taliban state. Cities the Marines took in November 2001 were slipping back to Taliban rule in fall 2015. The country we have broken is not worth owning.

Another road not taken is easy to see in hindsight, though it wasn't very popular at the time and has been strangely undiscussed in the context of France and the Islamic State. That is: Break it, declare victory, and go home. Leave the nation-building to the members of said nation. And put the world on notice that if you control territory, and nurture from within that territory an act of war against another country, your control of that territory is imperiled.

ISIS controls territory in Syria, Libya, and Iraq that roughly equals the land mass of Greece or Nicaragua, and contains an estimated population of 8 million. As of press time, the French government of President Francois Hollande has upped air strikes against the Islamic State and won military support from allies such as Germany and Britain while so far ruling out ground troops. So, no nation-building, but rather an attempt to change control on the ground through air power above. Something perhaps more like the Kosovo campaign in 1999 than the pre-Paris anti-ISIS muddle.

But there are potential drawbacks to this approach, to put it mildly. Air power, as the Obama administration has demonstrated with its drone assassination program in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, tends to kill more innocents than combatants, radicalizing those near the flak. The Islamic State is designed to disappear within civilian populations, then reappear when Western attention wanders elsewhere. Slobodan Milosevic, unlike ISIS, had no pretensions of leading or inspiring a global network of crusading jihadis against the West. And the most recent example of breaking a country without owning it—in Libya, in 2011—was a foundational event in ISIS's creation.

Meanwhile, France is engaging in the kind of civil liberties crackdowns—massive surveillance, arresting people for speech, closing down mosques—that would make Dick Cheney blush. As in our 9/11, the prospects for erroneous overreaction are high.

"The situation in France was a horrible tragedy," said Walter Jones soon after the Paris attacks. "ISIS is evil and they need to be defeated." Certainly easier said than done.