In September 2013, President Barack Obama blinked, changed course, and decided literally overnight not to take military action against Syrian president Basahr al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. I said to a French friend at the time: "Just watch. When an American president is perceived as being weak, bad things happen in the world." In March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.
The brutal, coordinated terrorist attacks by ISIS in Paris on November 13, 2015, should surprise no one. Syria and Iraq have become failed states, and the vacuum in Syria provided a large breeding ground for ISIS and its version of "radial Islam" to take root, proclaim itself a state, commandeer oil facilities, and now establish a caliphate the size of Indiana.
Moreover, ISIS leaders have warned the West in advance of almost everything they intended to do. We were told weeks ago that ISIS would infiltrate the Syrian refugees flocking to Europe by the tens of thousands - and that is precisely what ISIS appears to have done.
The critical issue now facing Western leaders is what to do. It is no longer a matter of "containing" ISIS; that is impossible. The group and its adherents around the world must be exterminated, and this means taking the fight directly to the caliphate itself, because occupying land is a key aspect of this brand of radical Islam, as noted by Graeme Wood in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic.
There is a curious reluctance by the Obama administration and the three Democratic presidential candidates to talk frankly about what is happening here. They refuse to recognize that the problem is "radical Islam." In fact, they cannot even bring themselves to utter the phrase.
This global fight is not against Islam or peace-loving Muslims. The fight is against a radical Islamic group that is determined to impose Sharia law, not just in the caliphate but across the world. We now have what the late Samuel Huntington called a "clash of civilizations." The battle is pitched between the civilized world and a radical Islamic group that has no respect for human life or civilized values.
As George Orwell taught us, imprecise use of language usually signals imprecise, muddled thinking. This is not a time for political correctness. ISIS never was a "junior varsity" player, and if it can perpetrate mass crimes in Egypt, Beirut, and Paris, all within two weeks, it cannot be "contained" either. This brand of radical Islam has to be eliminated root and branch.
What will it take? It no longer suffices to blame everything on President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. That is now a dodge. The issue is leadership today.
In concert with his fellow NATO leaders, French president Francois Hollande should invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty - the collective self-defense clause. France is a NATO member state and has been attacked by ISIS, a self-described state. This step will also send an important signal to Putin.
Then, with leadership from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the United States, other NATO countries plus key Arab nations in the Middle East, a coalition similar to what former president George H.W. Bush created in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War should be assembled. This 1990-1991 invasion force was charged with driving Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait to protect the oil fields. Today's invasion force would have a far more important mission: protecting innocent human lives throughout the civilized world and the values by which free people choose to live.
This military coalition must also be accompanied by a solid "peace plan" - a plan to ensure that once the caliphate is destroyed on the ground, the vacuum in Syria and Iraq is filled in a way that moves these two nations out of "failed state" status and back towards regional stability. Ongoing responsibility for these efforts must lie first and foremost with the regional Arab states that will have to bridge the Sunni/Shiite divide.
President Bush moved 500,000 American troops to the Middle East in 1990-1991. Other coalition members sent troops as well. The numbers needed for this battle may be less than 500,000, but we cannot eradicate ISIS without coalition ground troops. Among U.S. presidential candidates, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham has been saying this for months. The 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War saw 146 American and 9 French military deaths - slightly more than the number of people who were murdered in Paris on November 13-14 during the three-hour assault. The use of overwhelming force in 1990-1991 - the so-called Colin Powell doctrine - actually meant fewer military casualties, not more.
Half measures will not do the job. We should definitely equip the Kurds, continue airstrikes and drone attacks, carefully arm the Syrian opposition (what's left of it), build support among non-radical Muslims and Muslim nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, establish a no-fly zone over Syria, strengthen human intelligence on the ground, and ramp up shared signals intelligence. These activities will be helpful, but they will not finish the job.
The American public may be understandably war-weary and reluctant to put our service men and women in harm's way once again in the Middle East. If that is true, we need leadership now to make the case to the American people why this fight is essential. Most American "war presidents" say that committing troops to battle is the most difficult decision they ever made. We need that leadership now, before what happened in Paris last week becomes a reality in other parts of the civilized world.
Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H. W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.