Attacking ISIS: Military Force, U.S. Public Opinion and the Long War on Terrorism

ARLINGTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. speaks about the Syrian bombing campaign September 23, 2014 i
ARLINGTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 23: Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. speaks about the Syrian bombing campaign September 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mayville talked about the U.S. and Arab air strikes in Syria against the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As expected, the United States and its Arab allies have launched air strikes into Syria against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or the "Islamic State") targets. The attacks -- and public support for the use of military force in the Middle East -- represent a remarkable turnaround in U.S. public opinion. And while the threat posed by the Islamic State to U.S. interests has been made all too clear, the shift in public opinion and its influence on the political debate in Washington over the use of military force raises important questions about the America's capacity to effectively wage the ongoing global war on terrorism, conducting foreign policy in a deeply divided political environment, and the inherent challenges of counterterrorism in democratic societies.

Just over a year ago, the Obama administration publicly threatened airstrikes against the Syrian regime after reports of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in rebel-controlled areas. Polling consistently showed that Americans opposed intervention to stop the war by almost two to one, and significant majorities persisted in opposing air or cruise missile strikes even if Assad had been proven to use the weapons or if he didn't follow through on plans to surrender his chemical weapon stockpiles. Despite concerns articulated by regional experts and more interventionist-leaning officials that the ongoing conflict could destabilize the larger region and empower radical jihadist elements, few American supported a more active policy, never mind military intervention.

Similarly, as Iraq descended into greater sectarian violence, there was scant public support for U.S. military measures to address the situation. Generally viewing the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein from power as a costly mistake, the American public showed little enthusiasm for potentially repeating it by reentering an "Iraqi" conflict. Even after the dramatic fall of Mosul to Islamic State forces, 54 percent of American opposed air strikes against the group.

Only after the release of videos capturing the barbaric murders of two American journalists James Foley on August 20 and Steven Sotloff on September 9, did American public opinion shift significantly. A Pew Poll showed a near-reversal of public opinion with 53 percent of American favoring air strikes with only 29 percent opposed. Nearly two-thirds of American view U.S. military action against the Islamic States as "in American's national interest." Almost 80 percent of Americans polled were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about the threat of ISIS to the United States. Perhaps, most interestingly Americans now seems more concerned that the Obama administration will not do "enough" to address the ISIS threat through military means, as opposed to doing "too much."

It is perhaps unsurprising that the beheading of two American journalists would shift public opinion in the United States so dramatically. But while the gruesome executions of American citizens are indeed attacks on the United States, they were also purposefully designed and orchestrated to achieve an expected collective reaction. It has long been a part of the terrorist's strategy to engage in highly symbolic violence, cynically and callous using the victim to send a message and provoke a response that will further his own agenda. In this case, the killing of two American journalists and a British aid worker seems directed at pulling the United States and England into a larger conflict, perhaps to get Washington and London to overreact and utilize some indiscriminate use of force (a wider bombing campaign that would create civilian casualties in Sunni areas) to galvanize support for the Islamic State among Sunni communities. Perhaps the Islamic State leadership seeks to spark the return of U.S. grounds troops to the region to widen the conflict and increase U.S. casualties. As Osama bin-Laden learned after the September 11 attacks, this can be a dangerous (and ultimately self-defeating) strategy, but clearly the Islamic State leadership is confident that it can survive a resumption of U.S. military action in the region.

The emergence of ISIS as a large, well-organized force that employs particularly brutal tactics and is committed to achieving the same kind of maximalist goals as its predecessor-turned-competitor al Qaeda has effectively reenergized the global war on terror. Considering the numbers of Europeans and Americans that are believed to have entered the Syrian conflict and may now have joined ISIS, the threat of "home grown" terrorism should demand greater emphasis. With significant financial resources, manpower, some measure of territorial control, organizational discipline, and strong leadership and direction, ISIS seems to already be a terrorist organization with "global reach."

At the same time, ISIS may have real vulnerabilities. Its brutality may soon prove too great for its new subject populations. Its opportunistic liquidation of rivals -- whether fellow radical Islamists or otherwise -- is likely to create a long list of enemies waiting for a chance to strike back. Its consolidation of territory and conventional military successes will necessarily make it more open to conventional attack, and provide potentially rich targets for manned and unmanned U.S. and allied aircraft. There may be a great deal the United States and its allies can do to degrade ISIS on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The larger issue is that U.S. security policy cannot simply be driven by the ebbs and flows of public opinion. National security is simply too important, and given the recent history of U.S. engagement in the Middle East, there should be a vigorous and thoughtful debate about the goals and objective that military force can seek to achieve in this current conflict. This is not to be "anti-democratic" or to blame the public for either being war-weary after a decade of conflict with little tangible results or -- conversely -- being enraged by the actions of murderous terrorists. Instead, it is an indictment of our leaders. Rather than seriously consider the longer-term ramifications of military action against ISIS, whether for the Syrian conflict, the future of Iraq or the larger Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Middle East, U.S. leaders have been willing to simply follow the public and avoid the harder questions and difficult and complex issues that should be addressed before re-committing U.S. military forces. This is the time for a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy in the greater Middle East. Last week's debate failed miserably to approach these larger issues. The American people, and their men and women in uniform deserve far better.