When the U.S. does not lead in global national security issues, a vacuum occurs, and that usually results in chaos. I believe we are seeing that now with the rise of radical Islamic extremism. It is time for us to lead in the effort to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups.
President Obama has suggested that the terrorist threat is overblown. I believe the threat is very real, and it is past time we face it head on. It was just last month when ISIS terrorists killed 130 innocent people in a series of very well-coordinated attacks in Paris. These attacks did not occur in isolation. They were but one of a series of attacks that occurred within a 24-hour period. In that same time period, attacks left 43 people dead in Beirut, 18 dead in Baghdad, countless wounded — all ISIS attacks. In the preceding month, ISIS took credit for the downing of a Russian airplane claiming the lives of 224 innocent civilians. In September, Islamic extremists murdered nearly 50 in Yemen. In fact, if you look back over the period of the past year, several hundred civilians have been killed in nearly 30 attacks around the world. The threat is real.
Of course, earlier this month, we saw that when we were attacked here at home. In the worst terror attack in the United States since 9/11, the attack in San Bernardino reminded us that the threat posed by Islamic extremism can be home-grown or global.
These attacks should serve as a wake-up call, not only about the nature of the enemy we face in ISIS, but about the chaotic and dangerous state of the world today and the need for more determined American leadership to address it. Unfortunately, ISIS is not “contained”, and the attacks in Paris were not a “setback”, as the President has said. These attacks were a tragedy, one of a series of attacks, and a warning.
We cannot develop a successful strategy to defeat ISIS unless we understand its true nature. In my view, downplaying the Islamic extremist threat and viewing each tragedy in isolation is a fundamental flaw in the Administration’s national security policy.
ISIS is not just a nuisance to be managed; it is a global threat to be defeated. The territory ISIS holds has served as an incubator for radicalization and provides a safe haven for these terrorists to train, organize, gather resources, and project power. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Europe, the U.S., and around the world have flocked to the front lines of the global jihad, and some return home with the training and resources that have the potential to result in monstrous attacks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing atrocities and persecution in Syria have provided ISIS operatives a potential means to get access to other countries.
The Syrian refugee crisis is exhibit A of the chaos that emerges in a world without American leadership. As a member of the Homeland Security Committee, I recently questioned Administration officials on what steps are being taken to ensure terrorists do not exploit our Syrian refugee resettlement program and I have called for a thorough review of Department of Homeland Security and State Department vetting procedures to ensure that no terrorists or individuals with links to Islamist extremist groups make it into the United States.
Following the attack in San Bernardino, I questioned administration officials on the effectiveness of the Visa Waiver Program. More intelligence cooperation between the United States and our allies is necessary to track suspected ISIS terrorists and prevent them from hiding their presence and launching attacks.
In addition to better protecting the homeland by keeping people out who want to do us harm, the United States should also increase the scale and intensity of military operations against ISIS targets, and, through the use of U.S. Special Operations forces and local allies, defeat ISIS forces on the ground and retake lost territory. As I’ve argued for over two years now, we cannot ignore the broader conflict in Syria and must lead our allies in pursuing a comprehensive strategy to not only defeat ISIS but also achieve a negotiated resolution of the Syrian conflict. Military force alone will not solve it, but it can shape the parameters of an acceptable solution.
I was glad to be able to help our troops with the resources they need to stay safe and protect us in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act. Now is the time for all of us to stand by our troops, to reverse defense cuts and ensure our brave men and women in uniform have the best equipment, technology and training in the world.
It is a world where the very structure of international order is under siege and where the direction of our collective future is brought into question we can not afford to “lead from behind,” as the Obama Administration itself has described its approach. “Peace through strength” works better. We must be unwavering in our support to our allies, and we must be clear-eyed and resolute in standing up to our foes. That is the path to peace and security.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.