The Pitfalls of France’s War on ISIS
Noah Feldman identifies some of the pitfalls of France’s decision to label the attacks in Paris “an act of war.” Among other things, it creates expectations that the French government isn’t going to live up to:
The strategic rationale for withholding ground troops hasn’t changed. The U.S. won’t provide any because of public skepticism after the Afghan and Iraqi disasters. And if the U.S. isn’t willing to commit troops, neither is anybody else, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to, yes, France. The Paris attacks won’t move the needle sufficiently for Hollande to pursue a different course.
That leaves Hollande with no military option but contributing more to the air war. That’s fine, but it points to a deep flaw in his declaration. If Islamic State has really committed an act of war against France, shouldn’t France do more than send a few planes?
Like Obama’s statement that the U.S. would seek to “destroy” ISIS, Hollande’s declaration against ISIS sets a goal that he must know his government can’t achieve at an acceptable cost. Western political leaders seem to think that if they aren’t declaring war on a particular menace that they aren’t taking the problem seriously, and if they are declaring war on a group they have to say they are committed to its eradication. That doesn’t mean that they intend to do what is required to achieve the eradication of the group, nor does it mean that they believe that eradicating it is even possible under the circumstances. All that it really means is that they feel compelled to make the biggest show of hostility towards the group they can think of, and so they treat it as a problem to resolved with military means.
We see again and again how the bias towards “doing something” meets the over-militarization of foreign policy, and so increasingly the preferred response to something terrible is a military one. Whether this successfully addresses the threat or not is almost beside the point, because decisive “action” has been taken. We saw much the same thing in the French decision to start bombing targets in Syria as a bizarre response to the surge in refugees coming into Europe a couple months ago. Bombing Syria could not possibly have reduced the number of refugees fleeing Syria, and yet that was their answer. Military action is often treated as proof of a government’s “toughness” and “resolve,” but it is usually a better measure of how short-sighted and rash it is.
This is also why the talk of invoking Article V to bring NATO nominally into the fight seems misguided. As a practical matter, France and the U.S. were already bombing ISIS of their own accord, so it’s not as if the attacks on Friday created a new set of conditions that oblige the U.S. to do something it wasn’t already doing. The other members of NATO probably will express their solidarity with France in words, but very few of them will be willing or able to do more than that. More to the point, NATO was not intended to be used and should not be used as an umbrella organization to back up other members in their “out-of-area” military campaigns. It has been used that way in the past to the regret of many of the alliance’s members, and NATO governments should think carefully before repeating that same mistake.