Call to do more against Islamic State doesn’t settle discord over strategy

A banner reading "We are Paris" in Marseille, France, Monday.
A banner reading "We are Paris" in Marseille, France, Monday. AP

The Paris terror attacks yielded fresh urgency in Washington over the need to defeat the Islamic State, but no clear strategy emerged Monday amid warnings from both the government and the militant group that the United States could face similar assaults on the homeland.

During a day filled with second-guessing, competing ideas and bipartisan criticism, only one thing was clear: The tragedy that left at least 129 people dead in Paris, the capital of America’s oldest ally, was a game-changer in a 15-month campaign that has failed to contain the Islamic State despite a U.S.-led air war that’s included more than 8,100 air strikes.

Three days after the Paris tragedy, CIA Director John Brennan delivered a chilling prediction that similar terror attacks are likely in store for the United States and allied Western countries.

Saying that the French attack was probably not “a one-off event,” Brennan, using a common acronym for the Islamic State, added: “This is something that was deliberately and carefully planned over the course, I think, of several months. I would anticipate that this is not the only operation ISIL has in the pipeline.”

That warning was amplified by a direct threat issued in a new video posted on a website the Islamic State has used to broadcast previous messages. In it, a man wearing a turban and military fatigues, identified in subtitles as “al Ghareeb the Algerian,” states: “We say to the states that take part in the crusader campaign that, by God, you will have a day, God willing, like France’s, and by God, as we struck France in the center of its abode in Paris, then we swear that we will strike America at its center in Washington.”

There were increased security concerns in the nation’s capital.

While introducing Brennan to an audience of scholars, reporters, intelligence officials and congressional aides at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the think tank’s head, John Hamre, cited the “events in Paris over the weekend” and provided instructions on what to do if there was a terrorist attack in downtown Washington during the CIA chief’s address.

“If there’s a problem that emerges, I’m going to ask you to follow me,” Hamre said. “I’m responsible for your safety.”

Hamre then pointed to the emergency exits behind him and to his sides. Gesturing to the CIA chief, he added: “I am going to spend my time taking care of Director Brennan, but I will also take care of you, too.”

Some of the heightened debate featured predictable partisan criticism, with Republican lawmakers redoubling their claims that President Barack Obama has pursued weak and indecisive policies against the Islamic State.

Let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there?

President Barack Obama

“The urgency of confronting this threat before attacks reach our own shores is self-evident,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican said.

Accusing Obama of sticking to “a failed strategy,” McCain added: “The slaughter in Paris was not a ‘setback,’ as the president said today. It was an act of war. It is long past time for President Obama to wake up to reality, change course, and adopt a new strategy to achieve the decisive and lasting defeat of ISIL.”

McCain, however, offered no suggestions for a modified strategy, and most GOP presidential candidates did not budge from their longstanding agreement with Obama, supported by opinion polls, that American combat troops should not be sent back into Iraq or into Syria for the first time.

In a rare display of pique, Obama responded defensively to reporters pressing him on whether his response to the Islamic State has been adequate.

“Let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria,” Obama said at a news conference in Antalya, Turkey, after meeting with other world leaders at a G-20 summit. “What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else -- in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia? So a strategy has to be one that can be sustained.”

Some defense analysts attribute Obama’s caution to the chaos that has followed earlier U.S. interventions and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, under President George W. Bush, along with the American-backed overthrow in Libya of that country’s late leader Moammar Gadhafi under Obama.

Not all the criticism of the United States’ current course came from Republicans or politicians.

Before Brennan issued his fresh warning, one of his former top aides prodded Obama to alter his policies.

“I think it’s now crystal clear to us that our strategy, our policy vis-à-vis ISIS is not working and it’s time to look at something else,” Michael Morell, who served as CIA deputy director under Obama from May 2010 to August 2013, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program Sunday.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, urged Obama and Pentagon leaders to consider setting up a protected area in northern Syria, an idea they’ve long opposed as requiring a substantial number of American ground troops to enforce.

“I don’t think the answer is another massive American ground presence in either Iraq or Syria,” Schiff told NPR. “But I do think we’re going to have to explore things that we didn’t want to embark upon, such as a buffer zone or a safe zone. That allows the opposition to ISIS (a common acronym for the Islamic State) to have a ground from which to be equipped and trained and organized.”

3 The number of emergency exits John Hamre, the head of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, pointed to during a seminar Monday.

Obama again used a series of questions to reiterate his skepticism about a U.S.-enforced zone along the southern border of Turkey.

“Who would come in, who could come out of that safe zone?” Obama asked. “How would it work? Would it become a magnet for further terrorist attacks? And how many personnel would be required, and how would it end? There’s a whole set of questions that have to be answered there.”

The Obama administration took a smaller step in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks: Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided their staffs “new instructions that will enable U.S. military personnel to more easily share operational planning information and intelligence with our French counterparts,” according to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose