More than a week of cacophonous media and political gabble after the shocking Isis attacks on Paris make it clear that US presidential campaigns are no place to look for answers on this shocking and complex episode of new world chaos.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, our ever reliable index of the ignorant and irresponsible, wants to register all American Muslims. Marco Rubio sees a "clash of civilizations," as if the anti-civilizational barbarism of Isis now represents all rather than a tiny slice of Islam and a war against a religion is anything but a deranged idea. Some Republicans want to send a division or more of American troops to fight, not that many American voters agree.
Only Hillary Clinton provided a comprehensive and coherent response. Though it's quite unclear that her strategy would be any more effective than Barack Obama's, though it sounds tougher, and her inclusion of a Syrian no-fly zone to stubbornly try to bring down the Assad regime overlooks the stark reality of a strong Russian air force presence in Syrian skies.
Yet there may be ways to be much more effective in not just containing but strangling Isis both in terms of its seeming control over the de facto "Islamic State" portion of what have been Iraq and Syria and of its alarming global reach with recent successive attacks on a Russian jetliner over Egypt, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, and the cradle of Western civilization that is Paris. We may be able to effectively strike at the ability of Isis to communicate and recruit, its external commerce and fundraising, and its internal supply lines and cohesion using cyberwar and diplomatic suasion on certain Arab states, air strikes, and raiding parties staged from new forward operating bases inside Islamic State territory.
As tempting and, at least initially, emotionally satisfying as it might be to launch a conventional ground invasion of Islamic State territory, or to change the rules of air engagement which preclude taking out Isis forces and assets shielded in civilian areas, this may be precisely what Isis wants to recruit even more worldwide and sow further chaos through a rising wave of terrorism.
Isis promises more large-scale terror attacks on the West, including inside the United States.
Not that we have anything like a good read at all on Isis, which, even before revelations of cooked intel coming from Central Command, was obviously one of several appalling intelligence failures which suggest that Obama needs to shake things up in the National Security Council and elements of the Intelligence Community.
CIA Director John Brennan, who earlier somehow allowed Obama, whom he's been advising since the president was a young rookie senator, to believe that Isis was the "junior varsity" of jihadism, seems distracted from the tasks of intelligence and analysis by the secret global drone war he's conducting. His gambit of seizing on the Paris attacks as an excuse to break down private encryption is a non-serious smoke screen. There is no evidence that encryption played a role in Western intelligence missing the Paris attacks. There is plenty of evidence that European and US intellicrats, especially in Brussels -- merely the capital of NATO and the European Union -- let the attackers slip through their fingers.
The attackers were exactly what we would expect them to be, some foreign-oriented jihadists and disaffected Euro Arab Muslims, staging within easy hailing distance of the mighty EU and NATO headquarters in a Muslim enclave. So monitoring my communications, as Brennan and his fellow surveillance state advocates want, does nothing to deter attacks but does extend a potential hand of control by a credibility gap government.
Whatever we do next needs to be properly evaluated through an intellectual process of scenario-building and war-gaming, none of which happens on cable chat shows. For whatever we do next will reverberate for a long time.
We've certainly seen how that can work against us, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's disastrous invasion of Iraq, the actual cause of all the present trouble. And Barack Obama's dilatory response to the rise of Isis, as he fruitlessly focused on reforming a dysfunctional pro-Iranian Baghdad government and training up an Iraqi army on which far too many American billions had already been wasted, helped Isis grow ever stronger, as I wrote repeatedly at the time.
The current approach over the past year of air strikes and some ground offensive operations by Kurdish forces have prevented more geographic expansion of Islamic State territory and may have effected a slight rollback. But this obviously will not suffice.
Intense post-Paris French and Russian air strikes against the Islamic State capital Raqqa in what was northern Syria may not have been effective. Isis has taken much of its operations underground over the past year. And some activities are centered in the midst of civilian areas. In other wars, such as World War II, Allied forces hit civilian areas in Japan and Germany fairly indiscriminately. The "Good War" wasn't always so noble. But to take such an approach in this conflict may drive Isis recruitment and lead to more terrorist attacks, some coordinated by Isis and some simply the acts of angry homegrown jihadists.
The coming week, in which French President Francois Hollande visits President Obama in Washington and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, will be critical for future developments. Hollande evidently has a grand alliance in mind.
Since Putin is doing to be involved in a big way whether Obama likes it or not, Obama should move to structure the alliance to best advantage. Putin is no sweetheart. After seeming to be aligned with them in the first flush of post-Soviet chaos, the career intelligence officer squashed the Russian democratic reformers I was associated with in in the '90s. But Obama has to get over what looks from the outside like his ego problems with Putin -- which go back to the administration's thorough misreading of who was in really the power in Russia, as I wrote at the time of Obama's big 2009 visit to Moscow -- and get down to serious business. Nothing Putin has done should have been a real surprise to anyone with knowledge of Russian history and national security priorities dating back to the czars.
Franklin D. Roosevelt worked effectively for years with Joseph Stalin, a vastly more sinister figure than Putin.
Running intelligence and military operations is not my line, of course, but as a longtime student of the field, several things occur which may more effectively counter Isis and perhaps destroy it as a coherent entity.
In essence, what must be done is to destroy its lines of communication, both in the usual sense of the word and its military connotation. The monster can be strangled without a force-on-force ground invasion.
Why should Isis be allowed to use Western technology to attack the West?
A new anti-Isis alliance should immediately move to shut down the ability of Isis and its supporters to communicate and propagandize across social media and the Internet as a whole. All their sites should be wiped out, their nodes of operation destroyed or denied to them. Isis has declared war on the West, so its online presence should be deleted.
Turning to the more military sense of lines of communication, the ability of Isis to fund itself, both through business revenues and fundraising from other extreme religious ideologues, should be eliminated.
That means going after Islamic State commerce, especially the transport of oil, as the US has done on occasion and as Russia did extensively over the past week.
Air strikes may be of limited utility in cities but they are especially effective against targets moving out in the open, where they are vulnerable and more separated from non-combatants.
And of course the US Navy has a big role to play with oil that makes its way outside Islamic State territory. It should be seized or destroyed as contraband of war wherever it is discovered. And anyone who is in possession of this oil or who facilitates its movement should be forcibly detained as co-conspirators, their vessels or other conveyances sunk or otherwise destroyed. It appears Isis is getting some sophisticated help. There should be no Switzerlands in this conflict.
In addition to Isis commerce, Isis fundraising needs to be shut down.
Our dear friends in Saudi Arabia and some of the other oil-rich Gulf Arab states have, despite their pledges, pulled a disappearing act in the anti-Isis air war. Rather than confronting the psychotically extreme Sunnis of Isis, they are much more interested in countering Shiite Iran and pursuing their sputtering war in Yemen against Iranian sympathizers and tribes that dislike the House of Saud.
Fine. We don't actually need their American-supplied top-line aircraft. What we do need is for them to shut down the flow of funds from extremist religious sympathizers in their countries to Isis. And to make sure that they are in no way facilitating the flow of commerce for Islamic State.
In addition to waging cyber war, financial war, and aerial war, an enhanced ground component, inserted by air into Islamic State territory, may be effective. Not a conventional invasion per se for the purpose of seizing large swathes of territory but something non-linear; namely, the establishment of forward operating bases for elite special ops, airborne, light infantry, and marine forces from several nations to conduct devastating raids along the internal road system and against other targets of opportunity.
Technically, these bases, established by aerial incursion in empty stretches of Islamic State territory, could be easily surrounded. So much the better to lure Isis forces into the open where they can be destroyed by tactical air assets and tanks, mobile artillery, and rocket launchers.
France and Russia have plenty of elite troops to carry out this raiding function. If they want, the British, historically very good at this sort of thing, can join the party, too, along with other NATO members, since the Paris attacks fall under NATO's mutual security pact. Iranian forces may or may not be interested in joining in, but it's best to avoid running afoul of the Sunni-Shia divide.
The US ground role can remain very limited, with a focus on more spotting for air attacks and logistical operations. The principal US role can remain air-oriented, with US forces taking the lead in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, air ops coordination, aerial refueling, and the resupply of ground elements inside Islamic State.
Naturally, it would be preferable to negotiate some sort of end to hostilities with Isis. But these folks make the most extreme leaders in Iran look like reasonable moderates.
Isis looks very much like the most egregious recent exhibit A for the time-honored sociological phenomenon of psychopaths and sociopaths using supposedly divinely-inspired supernatural ideology to justify their will to power.
We have virtually no point of commonality with the barbarians of Isis, who stage their frequent beheadings with a grisly theatricality for video production. When its media arm claimed credit for the Paris attacks -- which focused not on "oppressive" institutions but on regular people out for a fun Friday evening in Paris -- the statement made neither demands not claims of retaliation for any harm. Instead, Paris was targeted as capital of "prostitution and obscenity."
Which is especially rich coming from thugs who use women as sex slaves. Yet utterly consistent in its thorough-going hypocrisy with the behavior of the attackers of 9/11, who loved American strip clubs.
For Isis, religion, as it has not infrequently been throughout history, is a doctrine of control. It may be time for Isis to learn that in an unimaginably vast and frequently random universe, which their determinedly ignorant minds don't even begin to comprehend, control is an illusion all too easily shattered by impact.
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