There is a clear lesson to take away from the surge: the sustained use of force on the model of Petraeus is not, as Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman claims, some “fantasy” that is necessarily doomed to fail. It is only doomed to fail if our indecisive President employs half measures to take down ISIS. In one sense, an attack on ISIS might prove easier than one on Saddam, who, after all, had all the prerogatives of a nation state. ISIS has no legitimacy in the territories that it controls, in sharp contrast, for example, to the Afghan tribal chiefs who enjoy fierce local support. A coordinated attack against ISIS modeled on the 2007 surge could probably start to have an immediate effect. Of course, it would not neutralize other attacks from outposts in other countries. But so long as those operations are taken from individual safe houses, it should be possible, as has happened in France, for local police and military units to root them out of their hiding places.
At this juncture, the President has to confront the painful reality that the overall security of Europe and the Middle East has declined precipitously since he took office. So too has the prestige and influence of the United States. Nonetheless, his current stand is at once defiant and delusional. He speaks of his “comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power—military, intelligence, economic, development, and the strength of our communities.” But the military component of this program has been about 8,000 airstrikes, which works out over the past 430 days to fewer than 20 sorties per day in a territory that is the size of the United Kingdom.
It is pointless for the President to speak about smallish territorial adjustments while ignoring the huge caches of military materiel at the disposal of ISIS, and its millions of dollars of oil revenue from the areas that it controls. It is also a mistake for him to think of humanitarian aid to the refugees as a viable long-term strategy, given that it imposes enormous financial, logistical, and security issues on the sagging economies of Europe and the Middle East. That situation will only get worse unless some strong steps are taken to stop the underlying violence causing the current flow of refugees. His weak leadership is generating major divisions in public sentiment as people are forced to grapple with the difficult trade-offs between compassion on the one hand and national safety on the other.