The US Congress’s scramble to score political points in the wake of the Paris attacks by passing a freeze on refugees coming to the US will do nothing to help keep the US safe.
But what will?
We have yet to see any evidence that refugees played a role in the attacks on Nov. 13. A key reason we’re talking about refugees in the US is that talking about how to actually tackle Islamist extremism is complicated and politically fraught. It’s easier to play to fears about outsiders than to develop a substantive program.
At least one US politician has given some thought to an idea about what to do: Presidential contender and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivered a speech today (Nov. 19) outlining her plan to battle the nexus of Islamist ideology that ISIL has created in the Middle East’s failed states.
We’ve broken her program into 24 steps, separated into three of the major goals Clinton outlined, which should give you an idea of the scope of the challenges, both in execution and in terms of potential political problems this plan will run into back home. It’s a cohesive approach—so cohesive, in fact, that if just a few of these items fail to get checked off, the whole thing could fall apart.
“Defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East.”
1. ”That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set.”
This seems fairly straightforward; already we’ve seen the US and France stepping up air strikes. But this also will mean more close calls between the US and Russia, which is also operating in Syria, and is at cross-purposes with the US—the Russians are backing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime against rebels of all stripes; the US and their allies want Assad out.
2. “We need an immediate ‘intelligence surge’ in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East, and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services.”
This makes a lot of sense, but US officials have been saying much the same thing since 9/11. And closer partnerships with regional intelligence services that operate under far looser rules can quickly put US operatives into some problematic ethical quandaries.
3. ”We should also work with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air.”
If just upping an air campaign in the same country as Russia seems tricky, a no-fly zone would entail a more direct confrontation with Russia and Assad. The US will either need Syrian air defenses (largely Russian in origin) to stand down, or it will have to destroy them. This shouldn’t be a huge technical challenge for NATO air forces, but it will mean either the tentative agreement on a political transition in Syria has become real, or the West has come to terms with Assad. Assad says he won’t step down until “the terrorists” are driven out of Syria—essentially, trying to get the West to choose between defeating him and defeating ISIL.
4. “Opposition forces on the ground, with material support from the coalition, could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country rather than fleeing toward Europe. This combined approach would help enable the opposition to retake the remaining stretch of the Turkish border from ISIS, choking off its supply lines.”
But the US and its allies don’t want to choose between Assad and ISIL: Both sides are killing civilians and driving the refugee problem. Yet someone has to take control of the Syrian-Turkish border to stop ISIL from raising money and attracting foreign fighters. The Syrian opposition can’t do it unless Assad is rendered impotent, which Russia and Iran don’t appear willing to tolerate.
5. “We should be honest about the fact that, to be successful, air strikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS. … [but] I do not believe that we should again have a hundred thousand American troops in combat in the Middle East…we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.”
There’s a lot of wiggle room between zero and 100,000, and those on the American left who see Clinton as being too hawkish won’t like to see her occupying the grey area. At the same time, the US has to come to terms with the failures of its strike-from-afar counter-terrorism strategy. Here’s how Clinton would get those local forces going—and notice how often that requires US troops to help:
6. “The Iraqi national army has struggled…we may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.”
US forces spent some eight years training the Iraqi army before it fell apart in its first confrontation with ISIL. Putting US soldiers into the fray as well would bolster strength there, but would hardly sit well with an American public skeptical of more deployments.
7. “We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni Awakening.”
The 2007 “Sunni Awakening” entailed convincing Iraqi citizens to fight in formal militias against Islamist forces; it was a major factor in reducing violence in Iraq. But it also entailed large US troop deployments performing on-the-ground, counter-insurgency tactics. As Clinton recognized, these militias were abandoned by the largely Shi’ite government left behind in Iraq, making any attempt to bring them back into the fray extremely challenging.
9. ”Baghdad needs to accept–even embrace—arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad will not do that, the coalition should do so, directly.”
Forging a united Iraq from the country’s three main ethnic groups has proven a so-far unattainable task for the US. It’s no surprise that the Shi’ite-dominated central government declines to embrace powerful militias in the hands of its foes. But make no mistake: Clinton is suggesting that the US-led coalition arm warlords over the objections of an ostensibly sovereign nation.
9. “We need to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well. To support them, we should immediately deploy the Special Operations force President Obama has already authorized and be prepared to deploy more, as more Syrians get into the fight. And we should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units.”
The US has repeatedly failed in its efforts to vet, train, and arm Syrian rebels, so making this work will be a significant task. Consider that the US military could not successfully train the Iraqi army in a country it occupied with 100,000 soldiers, and now Clinton would aim to accomplish a similar goal in another country in the midst of an ongoing civil war.
10. “We need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS and become a full partner our coalition efforts against ISIS.”
This action item entails ending, or at least tamping down, a conflict that has simmered between the Turkish government and Kurdish ethnic groups living in and around Turkey for the country’s entire modern existence.
11. “The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS. At the moment, they are focused in other areas, because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That is why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.”
This one requires the US to convince the Sunni states that it has the whole Iran thing under control following negotiations over a controversial nuclear non-proliferation treaty. With Iraq now directly under Iran’s influence and Yemen following, traditional Sunni states that are already fearful of the demands of their own people now see a neighbor they fear gaining strength.
12. “Congress should swiftly pass an updated authorization to use military force. That will send a message to friend and foe alike that the United States is committed to this fight.”
The Obama administration requested this authorization in February, and so far Congressional leaders have dithered, unwilling to take ownership of the strategy by authorizing US military action directly.
“Disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing arms and propaganda around the world.”
13. “The United States and our allies need to know and share the identities of every fighter who has traveled to Syria.”
14. “When it comes to terrorist financing, we have to go after the nodes that facilitate illicit trade and transactions. The UN Security Council should update its terrorism sanctions. They have a resolution that does try to block terrorist financing and other enabling activities but we have to place more obligation on countries to police their own banks.”
Easier said than done: Banks, especially in Europe (paywall), have vociferously protested new rules meant to combat and root out money-laundering.
15. “And, once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path toward radicalization.”
Given the ideological pressure from Iran and from within their own countries—combined with the plunging price of oil—this will be a very hard sell for supposed US allies whose citizens back Islamist extremists.
16. “There is no doubt we have to do a better job contesting online space, including websites and chat rooms where jihadists communicate with followers. We must deny them virtual territory, just as we deny them actual territory. Social media companies can also do their part by swiftly shutting down terrorist accounts so they are not used to plan, provoke, or celebrate violence.”
A good thought, but challenging to enforce. Free speech advocates fear the kind of power needed to shut down terror plans could be used to squelch legitimate speech.
17. “We are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate—and we have to win it. Now, let’s be clear though: Islam itself is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The obsession in some quarters with a ‘clash of civilizations’ or repeating the specific words ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ is not just a distraction, it gives these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve and it actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.”
Given how quickly anti-Muslim rhetoric became acceptable (again) among leading US political figures after the Paris attacks, it will be extremely challenging for the US to win a propaganda war over tolerance, but this may be among the most critical items on this list.
18. “Let’s not lose sight of the global cooperation needed to lock down loose nuclear material, and chemical and biological weapons—and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.”
With new reports of smugglers pushing Russian plutonium pilfered during the fall of the Soviet Union, and of ISIL efforts to manufacture mustard gas, non-proliferation efforts remain both under-emphasized and pressing.
“Harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.”
19. “The United States must work with Europe to dramatically and immediately improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination.”
It appears that the main intelligence flaw behind the Paris attacks was poor coordination between European intelligence agencies seeking to track potential terrorists, akin to intelligence agencies within the US failing to share information ahead of the 9/11 attacks. Ensuring coordination between European countries and with the US could help create a better picture of emerging threats.
20. “The threat to airline security is evolving as terrorists develop new devices like non-metallic bombs, so our defenses have to stay, at least, one step ahead.”
These bombs have been on the radar of US intelligence agencies since at least 2009, prompting the banning of large amounts of liquids in your carry-on luggage and the increased use of “sniffer” technology to detect explosives.
21. “Law enforcement also needs the trust of residents and communities, including in our own country Muslim-Americans.”
See comments on item 17.
22. “We need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector. To develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy. Now is the time to solve this problem, not after the next attack.”
Though it’s not clear that encryption was standing between intelligence agencies and identifying the Paris attackers, intelligence sources have used the attack to make the case against strong consumer encryption.
23. “We do need to be vigilant in screening and vetting any refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security professionals in close coordination with our allies and partners. And congress needs to make sure the necessary resources are provided for comprehensive background checks, drawing on the best intelligence we can get.”
The US already runs all refugees through an extensive vetting program, including intelligence background checks. But the passage of a bill essentially questioning the safety of the program shows the refugee program is a potent political issue—which is why Clinton took the opportunity to suggest a budget-cutting Republican congress is part of the problem, too.
24. “We should lead the international community in organizing a donor conference and supporting countries like Jordan who are sheltering the majority of refugees fleeing Syria.”
Not much here about lessening the burden elsewhere by accepting more refugees, but at least there’s some recognition that the countries actually taking on refugees en masse could use a hand.