The narrative for the weekend news cycle seemed like it was set by early Friday morning. News outlets reported that US and UK intelligence were reasonably certain that Jihadi John was dead, killed in a hellfire missile drone strike. During the late morning/early afternoon hours in the United States, President Obama declared that ISIS was not decapitated, but "contained." A few hours later, ISIS, possibly in response to the US air strike that killed its PR man, launch an attack on Paris that would suggest those words were ill chosen. Indeed, I suspect if Obama could reply Friday morning and afternoon, he would like a do-over. Simply put, his statements raise serious questions regarding the competency of current Western leadership in the area of global Islamic extremism.
The narrative changed. Despite a massive drone warfare program and intelligence network, the narrative changed. We are not spending the weekend reassuring ourselves of the triumph of the West over ISIS and Islamic extremism nor are we being washed in publicity spots disguised as new reports and intending to cultivate a sense that justice was done and freedom defended. The story of our small victory that should have dominated the weekend news cycle has instead been replaced, and the technological edifice we constructed that was supposed to assure us of our victory was overwhelmed by an attack marked by cunning and almost simplistic savagery. The words of Darth Vader are only too appropriate: "don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed."
The attacks in Paris establish a precedent that is justifiably terrifying. ISIS has demonstrated the ability to engage in same-day retaliation. What is more, they have raised the stakes. The US killed four of their own. They responded with mass civilian casualties, achieved through simple brutality.
President Hollande said this was an act of war on the part of ISIS. When a nation says it was on the receiving end of an act of war, said nation typically intends to declare war on the aggressor. The natural question arises: what will be Hollande's aim? The last Western president to declare and engage in war was thoroughly ridiculed by the majority of the EU nations. His own army used a tactical method that was not designed to "fight a war to win a war," rather, it was designed to suspended the conflict as soon as possible with limited casualties. This method proved unable to cope with the essentially prolonged nature of the conflict in the region and lead to a war weary public pivoting to the opposite ideological spectrum.
After his presidency was completed, Anglo-American and EU powers took a firmly left turn. The US, for its part, followed its committed ideology and pulled back troops and ground operations, trusting future events to local governments and an increasingly expansive drone warfare program. A power vacuum emerged leading to a re-engineered Islamic extremism taking over local governments (the Arab). Out of this, ISIS was born. The West, averse to engage in a ground war, has attempted to play the cards of Arab unrest, trying to separate the acceptable Islamicists from the unacceptable. It has tried reading the tea leaves and taking sides, funneling weapons an eventually supporting those it thinks are the "good" Islamicists. In so doing, it betrayed one of our allies (Egypt) and double crossed a man who only a few years before finally capitulated to Western pressure and decided to "play ball" on our terms (Ghadafi).
So what does Hollande intend behind his comment that this was an act of war? Does he mean to say France will fully engage in the same tactics the US has used for almost 8 years and with which has created no discernible impact, save for building up the mythos of ISIS? Or does he intend to engage a war and fight a war to win it, not merely bring a cessation to conflict?
We are at war with an idea. Truth be told, being at war with an idea puts one against an enemy more fearsome than merely an opposing army. Armies and nations can be conquered and vanquished. Ideas have consequences and often find ways of reproducing themselves. To make war against an idea (or an ideal) one must have a counter idea (or ideal ) of your own, a principle that is capable of arousing the passion of the public to fight for it and persevere until the end. What idea, ideal, or principle does the contemporary Western world have to offer? We have subjected the classic ideas, ideals and principles of the West in favor of political correctness, consumerism, and absolute relativism. Are these three categories strong enough to ignite the fire in the minds and passion in the hearts of men, thereby gritting us for the long haul? Or are these symptoms of a culture whose excess has brought it to the point of exhaustion? Have we indeed primed ourselves for the fall? In an instance of historical irony, France, the country that did so much to set the West on the trajectory to its current state, is now in the position of having to demonstrate what type of response the West is capable of. To put it another way, was the Greatest Generation the last great generation? Is it the case that the generation the fought its way out of a global depression and triumphed over Nazism was the last generation of Westerners with sufficient numbers who had the ingrained ideas, ideals, and principles of the classic Western tradition to combat a fearsome ideology?
When fighting a war, one must fight it to win it. The West is fond of combat operations that avoid boots on the ground and incurring any casualties. Western press and academics are pre-progammed to lambaste civilian casualties in an conflict. Casualties are a part of war, civilian or between armies. In the current context, a declaration of war is defied by the nebulous nature of the enemy. ISIS has its demarcated territory, but throughout the Middle East and into parts of Africa, you are not dealing with chunks of territory pledged to ISIS. Rather, you dealing with a massive geopolitical area marred by political instability where groups allied to ISIS or other Islamic extremists are vying to destabilize localities and then assume the local governorship. When faced with this, it will be observed that, aside from ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq, it is impossible to declare a war on a precise entity. Engage in a war would necessitate eventual involvement in these other countries that have fallen into instability. The whole scenario eventually brings up the problem of non-combative civilian casualties in the region. Although this is a noble concern, the attacks in Paris and the bombing of the Russian airliner on October 31st reveals a layer to the discussion that the West has failed to appreciate: we are being forced to choose between our own civilians and theirs. While the civilian casualties in Syria or elsewhere may be collateral damage, we must, to a certain extent, be willing to accept the culpability for such actions, otherwise we are willing accept that our own civilians will be subject to casualties by explicitly targeted attacks on our own soil. This is not an ideal scenario, but it is the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
In part, the fixation upon the just war theory has lead us to this point of paralysis, where the West is unable to enact the solemn decision of will and acceptance of grave responsibility for what must done. We are obsessed with finding the good war, the right war, the just war, and being able to say we are blameless in all of our actions. But this is not the case - no one is innocent in war. War is evil, always and on all sides. Sometimes, however, war and all of its evils are the only option left to preserve a greater good. Sometimes it is the only option a state has to protect its citizens. This will never make a war just - it will make it a necessity, or a fact of human existence, never just, never something we should feel especially proud of. We think of all the humane ways of conducting warfare in the abstract. We seldom realize the brutal nature of it, and we are especially averse to accepting that war is never humane or good. War is evil, war is hell, it is sometimes the only option, a necessary part of human existence, evidence of a fallen humanity. Perhaps that is the really reason fighting a war to win a war paralyzes us these days; it questions the integrity of the myth of progress and forces us to re-examine the myth of the Creation and Fall and reflect upon a fallen world.
There will likely be more security measures put in place on both sides of the Atlantic. The fear expressed by most every analyst is that, officially, the game has changed with ISIS. We have any entity that is global in scope, capable of retaliation, and following an ideal. The world has changed. The West must ask itself if it is capable of adapting to this change. A negative answer ensures a prolonged conflict that will span generations. A positive answer, however, poses an unknown risk. After determining the path required by necessity, will we be able to put back into that Pandora's Box whatever it is we released?