In recent days, Michel Coulombe, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), took the unusual step of printing an op-ed in both French and English dailies in Canada warning Canadians of the threat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He notes that Canadian “nationals” who have joined “nationals” of other Western countries in fighting for the Islamic State represent a threat, not only to the Canadian homeland, but to their respective countries. Coulombe concludes by asserting that involuntarily exporting terrorist acts is just as serious as having it on our homeland.
In the United States, war hawks, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, appear on talk shows criticizing the Obama administration for being weak and employing half-measures with respect to ISIS, in a fashion similar to the 2003 pre-Iraq invasion buildup. Talk of escalating U.S. air aids in Syria is now a daily reality. The second beheading of an American journalist will not reduce the pressure.
Even Democrats are beginning to criticize the Obama administration, which has not shown the kind of sure-footedness expected in a time of crisis. Granted, the world is more complicated these days: a war in Gaza—currently in ceasefire, but for how long?—Russian aggression in the Ukraine, a serious outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa and potentially beyond, and now the barbaric, self-declared caliphate—ISIS. Surely, it is difficult to have a textbook response to multiple and diverse crises. Yet, the civil war in Syria has gone on with extremists building their forces, and the U.S. wielding little influence. The ISIS threat of attack is now real and may be what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called “imminent.”Perhaps, Obama’s prudence and reluctance are preferable to action without a clear objective or an eventual exit strategy. After all, the American President did not succumb to the Iraq war drums in 2003 and his position then has since been vindicated.
That said, the threat of ISIS cannot be ignored or downplayed. The group is clearly a direct menace to Western and democratic nations who may not be well-equipped to deal with lone-wolf and homegrown terrorists. In response to the purported threat, British Prime Minister David Cameron has already called for stronger measures to monitor suspected nationals traveling abroad. When it comes to reflecting on 9-11, it is apparent that there were indicators of the magnitude and proximity of an eventual terrorist attack that went ignored by the Bush-Cheney administration.
In democratic nations such as Canada and the U.S., it is proper for those preoccupied with civil liberties to raise questions about privacy and security measures as well as show reluctance to engage in armed interventions. Those in the intelligence sector, who are paid to anticipate and prevent atrocities, must also remain vigilant and active. The balance between being cautious and staying alert is central to a healthy democracy. However, a tangible threat of terrorism will become central to any policy decision regarding whether or not we engage in conflict in the battle-field.
It is understandable that domestic politics in the U.S. and other Western nations play a role in this rising conflict in both Syria and Iraq. Fortunately, the U.S. President and his allies are currently using a mixture of action and restraint. Resisting the rush to war takes strength and will, just as deciding to go to war does.
If there is anything we learned from 9-11, it is that we must be cautious about a “rush to war” mentality. Time and prudence must become assets. Our world leaders must act methodically with clear objectives. Which is the best course for the future–greater diplomacy or increased armed intervention?
In this regard, President Obama has been a reassuring leader. My sense is that Obama will continue to work with allies to recover territory from the Islamic State forces, building and reinforcing regional and Western coalitions for stability and potential action in the region and beyond with the goal of neutralizing or eliminating the ISIS threat. When the time comes for a definitive course of action, President Obama and his allies will then be in a stronger position to act decisively and effectively.