After Brussels: The Blame Game

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By David Wemer

As Europe reels from the horrific attacks in Brussels, politicians and commentators have struggled to find a unified voice in response. Unlike the November Paris attacks, which were met with public demonstrations of European unity and a visible military response from President Hollande, the aftermath in Brussels has been largely marked by confusion, tension, and apparent paralysis on the part of Belgian and European authorities. Rather than publishing images of somber vigils or stories of heroic rescues, newspapers have been filled with headlines on cancelled demonstrations, right-wing riots, and bungled police raids. Almost all of the discussion in the press and amongst commentators has centered on assigning blame for the attacks, with fingers pointed at the most expedient political target, rather than any sort of sober diagnosis.

Here in the United States, the Obama Administration has been a popular target. To many, the Brussels attacks are a sign that the U.S. President has failed to adequately respond to the Syrian conflict. The United States has stood by for years as ISIL has taken control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria--through which they have been able to orchestrate attacks in two major European capitals. But these criticisms ignore important details about these attacks, chiefly that most of the attackers in Brussels, and indeed in Paris, were European nationals who were radicalized not in the deserts of Syria but in the impoverished urban centers of Europe. These attackers were likely emboldened by ISIL's success and some of the leaders may have had direct access or assistance from ISIL leadership, but the vagueness of ISIL's original press release suggests that the attacks were largely orchestrated without the knowledge of ISIL leadership. Make no mistake: the inaction of the Obama Administration, and indeed many Western nations, in the face of ISIL's atrocious war crimes has been deplorable. To place direct blame on Obama's policy of restraint, however, goes too far.

Another target of intense criticism has been the victim country itself: Belgium. Revelations of missed intelligence warnings, understaffed security services, and disjointed bureaucracy have made it seem that the attacks could have easily been avoided, had Belgium not dropped the ball. Alternatively, some have placed the blame on nationalist division within the country, which has paralyzed its federal structure, allowing the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek to become the "terror capital of Europe." These criticisms, although easy to make in light of Belgian authorities' confused response to the crisis, are largely unfair. Could Belgium have done better? Perhaps. Were pieces of intelligence missed? Certainly. Belgium is not the first country to miss intelligence warnings, however, and not even the most sophisticated network can stop all attacks.

The rise of radicalism amongst a small minority of European Muslims has rightly received most of the attention in the aftermath of the attacks. The most troubling revelation has been that many of these attackers did not grow up in the autocratic and unstable Middle East, but rather in the liberal democracies of Western Europe. A few commentators have provided insightful analyses of this phenomenon, citing economic isolation and latent structural racism in Europe, as causing the failure of European communities to successfully integrate Muslim communities. These rare analyses have been drowned out, however, by voices decrying "political correctness" and the West's reluctance to offend Muslim communities in the face of Islamist violence. Rather than offering solutions to aid integration, these pundits have placed the blame on European Muslims, capitalizing on fear to advance anti-immigration policies.

Lost in these assignments of blame is any real discussion of potential solutions. Outside of modest assistance by U.S. Marines to the Iraqi Army outside Mosul, Western countries remain unwilling to commit ground forces to defeat ISIL. The shortcomings of Belgium's security forces have so far only been addressed by a law allowing searches of homes after 9:00PM. And while the idea of further intelligence sharing amongst European nations has been floated, it has been framed in grandiose language of a European "CIA," a drastic integration step that would take years and a formal treaty change to enact. The only real response addressing the status of Belgium's Muslim community is a proposal requiring migrants to sign an "integration pledge."

Certainly a proper diagnosis of mistakes and the root causes of Islamist terror in Europe are necessary to formulate a plan of action. But instead of sober analysis, politicians and commentators have rushed to assign blame on their opponent of choice: the Obama Administration, American neoconservatives, American liberals, Belgian authorities, Flemish nationalists, the European Union, Euroskeptics, Muslim immigrants, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, media coverage is already starting to turn away from the Brussels attacks, and the opportunity to use public attention to implement serious policies is fading fast. It is time to stop focusing on scoring cheap political points, and instead work together to find practical solutions. If we cannot, we risk these attacks truly becoming the new normal for Europe and the world.

David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.