The brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces have shocked the world and evoked reactions in the highest places. The message seems pretty clear: We should fear for our lives. Isn't that a little over the top?
Chuck Hagel, secretary of Defense, has informed us that the threat of the ISIS is a threat "beyond anything we have seen." Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) has demanded stepped-up border patrols, including drones, as added measures needed to keep terrorists from attacking us. The spokesman on the video portraying the beheading of journalist James Foley had a British accent in a not-too-subtle suggestion that English-speaking people should know that these fighters are in our midst. News outlets are scrambling to provide one ISIS spokesman or another the opportunity to let us know that they will kill every non-Sunni Islamic fundamentalist or die trying. To quote CNN:
"There are thousands ... all across Europe in Syria and Iraq, according to some estimates. The Soufan group, a security consulting firm, believes there are around 700 from France, 800 from Russia and almost 300 from Britain. But these figures relate to people analysts have been able to track, and the true numbers may be even higher. And as ISIS's onslaught in Iraq grows, there are fears even more foreigners will be drawn to fight."
After the initial foray by ISIS into Iraq, it was reported that ISIS recruits from the region and elsewhere could number as many a 6,000 new fighters.
Exactly what are we afraid of? We live in a country that spends over $60 billion a year on internal "homeland" security and spent $635 billion in the 10 years following the attacks on 9/11. In virtually every incident where someone has slipped through the cracks, like the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston bombing fame, there has been a missed opportunity to properly identify and apprehend malfeasance. We are told that thousands of terrorist initiatives have been quietly put to rest.
It is truly time to get a grip on this issue and place it in perspective so we can more soberly assess these circumstances. We have said previously that the establishment of a caliphate, a nation-state of Islamic extremists, actually favors our form of defense. If you have a territory controlled by an adversary and it claims borders and central controls (even if they are a moving target), you have something to attack.
President Obama has acquitted himself quite well in these latest events. He used the excuse of humanitarian relief to the Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar to support resistance by Kurdish forces. He is using the cover of Islamic extremism to "reconsider" our involvement in Syria. We don't know what is going on behind the scenes, but it is a pretty good bet that his withholding of support to the Iraqi government is bent on reforming or breaking its secular stranglehold. It is a pretty good bet that he is "communicating" to the Saudis their need to support less extreme groups of Sunnis. It is a pretty good bet he is communicating with Iranian leaders their need to press for moderation from their Iraqi acolytes.
The Israelis have also provided cover, given their strong reaction to Palestinian rockets headed for large population areas. His moves look benign compared to the ferocity of the Israeli responses.
In a very real sense, the president is using the very same fear tactics employed by Republicans to galvanize support for a more aggressive or perhaps more "realistic" approach to the use of force in the world. Instead of the racism hiding behind Republican opposition to effective governance, or the homophobia behind their "family values" attacks, Obama uses the threat of terrorists and the need for humane reactions to barbarism as grounds for breaking campaign promises. It catches both sides of the political spectrum. Moderates and independents view the muscular approach as cure for his lack of "leadership" and the more liberal elements respond to the humanitarian elements.
This is smart policy, but there is another element that needs to be added to the mix. The clue was given by the Israeli lethal bombing of three Hamas military leaders. Ever since 1976, when then-President Ford signed Executive Order 11905 banning political assassination, political leaders around the world have felt comfortable exacting any number of heinous acts on or on behalf of their countries. It is time to abandon that policy and let the world know that should you advocate war or commit crimes against humanity, you, the leader, will be targeted for removal. The next step would be to offer to become the enforcement arm of the International Criminal Court. That court has already condemned Bosnian-Serb, Sudanese and Liberian thugs. These are the little fish. Wouldn't it be fascinating to see humanitarian groups bringing Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before the court?
And in case you think that American leaders would then be subject to reciprocal treatment by these very same folks, what makes you think they are not already? Maybe you should reread the status of American defenses listed above.
Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.