Why the Paris Attacks Won’t Be a Game-Changer for Obama

France and even Russia are doubling down on their fight against the Islamic State. But don’t expect the president to shift his current strategy.


The mass carnage in Paris last Friday was the worst terrorist attack perpetrated in and against the West since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. And there are some who might come to believe (or hope) the severity of these attacks would produce a fundamental change in the Obama administration’s approach to the Islamic State and Syria.

But, as I’ve noted before, when it comes to President Barack Obama and abrupt policy changes, anyone caught up on this idea ought to lay down, take a deep breath, and wait quietly until the feeling passes.

Five days after the Paris carnage, it may simply be too soon (and unfair) to make categorical predictions about what the U.S. president will and will not do to respond to Islamic State terrorism. And of course, without a crystal ball, who’s to say if future attacks in Europe, or even a similar attack here in the United States, would fundamentally change U.S. policy.

But preliminary indications, based on Obama’s statements at the G-20 summit, suggest that the Paris attacks aren’t going to fundamentally influence or alter the administration’s approach toward the Islamic State and Syria. For now, America’s Goldilocks policy — a mix of diplomatic and military moves that are neither too hot nor too cold and are designed to degrade and contain the Islamic State’s spread over time — will continue to prevail.

But other world leaders appear to be shedding — perhaps even breaking with — Obama’s slow-burn game plan and going red hot against the Islamic State: understandably, France and Russia, in particular, two of the Islamic State’s most recent victims. And that is a potentially significant change. Indeed, right now it seems that the Paris attacks aren’t a proverbial game-changer for the United States but another horrific turn in the long war against global jihad. Let’s wait and see whether the Obama administration can take advantage of the horror in Paris to energize its own policies and help its allies to strengthen theirs.

Understandably, French President François Hollande reacted to the carnage perpetrated on his homeland with strong words and deeds, promising that France’s response will be pitiless and merciless. The French have used U.S.-supplied intelligence for launching strikes against Raqqa as well as for beginning their own crackdown against potential jihadi sites and safe houses in France and Belgium. Hollande has sought broader emergency powers to do precisely that. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, having officially pronounced that the Islamic State was in fact responsible for the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268, vowed revenge in an appearance during which he emanated an icy stare, one he no doubt cultivated when he served in the KGB.

Indeed, the sense you get from worldwide media coverage of the Paris tragedy is that the days of namby-pamby policies against the Islamic State are over — that the time has come for the West to step up. Paris was the tipping point, the game-changer, the proverbial transformative moment that should and would energize the West and the international community to turn the long war against the Islamic State into a much shorter affair.

On this side of the Atlantic, however, that sprit is less in evidence. Calmness and coolness prevails at least on the surface. The media and presidential candidates may be breathless about the need to get tough with the Islamic State, with Sen. Lindsey Graham predicting another 9/11 if we don’t. But the Obama administration, not so much. Perhaps this is understandable. After all, Paris was attacked, not Washington. And partly to Washington’s credit, the Obama administration has avoided its traditional bad habit of promising more than it’s going to deliver. (As it did with “Assad must go”; calling the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime a “red line”; calling for a comprehensive Israeli settlements freeze; and the $500 million program to train moderate Syrian rebels that quickly went south.)

Instead, what has been offered up by administration officials seems to be an effort to downplay the prospects that Paris will lead the United States — at least for now — to fundamentally alter its existing (and cautious) policies in Syria. On Sunday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes agreed with Hollande that the Paris attacks were an “act of war,” but proceeded to rule out any major change in U.S. policy that might bolster that assessment. Finally, he doused with ice water the possibility that more U.S. troops were the answer, arguing that setting up a no-fly zone was too expensive and a misallocation of resources. (Perhaps in an effort to reassure the public, he said that the Islamic State may have the desire to attack the homeland but lacked “great capacity” to do so.)

Ahead of the G-20 summit, National Security Advisor Susan Rice set the tone for what might be achieved at the meeting with a comment that may yet prove to best capture the administration’s mindset. “I don’t think anybody expects a single outcome that all of a sudden readily resolves all these difficult issues,” she said. “We’re looking to try to use these venues to make incremental progress toward the objective that we all seek.”

Obama’s comment at the summit that the Paris attacks were not simply an attack on France but on the entire civilized world was true enough but somehow seemed stale and lacked the freshness and resolve that seemed called for in the moment.

So what’s really going on here? In the wake of the Paris atrocities, what’s driving U.S. policy away from a more muscular role and, like a moth to a flame, toward a more risk-averse approach consistent with traditional policies? Here’s what Obama would say to you if he could.

The prime directive

I’m a Star Trek fan. And my prime directive — my overarching philosophy on foreign policy — is this: I am the extricator-in-chief. My role is to get America out of unpopular and unwinnable wars and avoid getting them into new ones. And when I say new ones, I mean situations where the United States acts with military force, particularly when it comes to the use of ground forces, and where it thinks or plans little, or not at all, for the day after the Day After. (See Libya.) As far as counterterrorism is concerned, I make apologies to no one. I’ve been George W. Bush on steroids: using drones and expanding the arena for their use with 10 times the frequency as my predecessor; and killing Osama bin Laden and plenty of other al Qaeda and Islamic State leaders, including Jihadi John and a top Libyan operative. I’m after counterterrorism, not trillion-dollar social science experiments in nation-building that sap U.S. strength and credibility and put thousands of Americans in harm’s way. And I know I’m right about this.

Keeping my head

The terrorism gurus may be right that the Paris attacks reflect a transformation of the Islamic State threat. But if I accept that and don’t keep my wits about me, that means we must transform the response and sustain that transformation. No more degrading and even ultimately destroying — but an all-in, no-holds-barred approach. The problem is that if we go that route, specifically raising expectations that the United States will lead a coalition to send in ground forces to crush the Islamic State, we could easily inflict more damage on ourselves, not to mention making the situation worse. After all, look at Iraq. I’ve seen that movie. And I don’t want reruns to dominate the last year of my presidency. The fact is, I’m a self-described fan of Reinhold Niebuhr. And I think he’s right. The best we’re going to do in this long war against terrorism (I still don’t even want to call it what it really is: the war against global jihad) is to come up with a proximate solution to an insoluble problem.

My strategy may not be working, but there isn’t a better one

I just told the world at Antalya that I’m not going to deploy large numbers of grounds forces or fundamentally alter my strategy toward the Islamic State. I may be prepared to ramp up airstrikes and take a more focused approach toward striking the Islamic State’s oil assets, even commit to more special operations forces. But the broad outlines of my approach — air power; working with and arming local forces, particularly the Kurds; hitting Islamic State leadership targets — are our best option — for now. Maybe the attack will force others, namely the French and the Russians, to ramp up their military action and coordinate more closely. I’ll try to push the Turks. But Erdogan just seems more focused on hitting the Kurds than the Islamic State.

Diplomacy with Putin

I really don’t like Putin, and I don’t trust him. But maybe I can figure out a way to leverage his help in some sort of political process that can ease Assad out and focus attention on the Islamic State. He saved me once before from using military force in Syria during the red line affair by working with us to remove chemical weapons from Syria. And maybe he’ll be willing to do it again. I’m not sure the secretary of state’s effort to create a U.N.-brokered political transition in Syria right now is anything more than an enterprise a little north of mission impossible. But it’s worth a try. I may have to accept Russia as a major player in Syria and will probably have to accept a transition process with Assad that’s longer than I wanted. But, hey, I’ve already given Iran a seat at the diplomatic table for free. I can’t stand Assad; he’s enabling the Islamic State. Still, the reality is, he’s not killing Americans and Europeans.

A final thought…

So everybody calm down and stay cool. The Republicans can call me a leader from behind, a declinist and an abdicator-in-chief. My good friend Hillary can distance herself from me on Syria, though she better not go too far. My risk aversion on Syria makes a lot of sense to me and my team. The reality is, America isn’t Europe. As Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin argued in the New York Times this week, the odds of a Paris-style Islamic State attack in the United States now are pretty low.

Gee whiz, I hope they’re right.


Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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