“Nature abhors a vacuum” observed the Greek philosopher Aristotle – a remark that, demonstrably valid, has entered into common parlance. Given US President Barack Obama’s self-evident abdication of America’s role as defender of Western values in the turbulent Middle East, a new leader is indeed emerging.
“This administration,” said US Senator John McCain, on October 1, “has confused our friends, encouraged our enemies, mistaken an excess of caution for prudence, and replaced the risks of action with the perils of inaction.”
He was reacting to Russia’s surprising entry into the Syrian civil conflict, a campaign in strength which seemed destined to put America’s so-far ineffective intervention in the shade. At that point it appeared as though Russian President Vladimir Putin might become the global symbol – so needed, but so lacking – of determined opposition to jihadist terrorism. It soon became obvious that Putin’s real agenda was to sustain Bashar al-Assad in power as Syria’s president, support Iran in their struggle against Assad’s enemies, and enhance his own bid for super-power leadership.
Putin’s priorities suffered a severe shock on October 31, when a Russian Airbus A321, on a flight from Egypt to St Petersburg, was blown out of the sky, killing all 224 people on board, including 17 children. Islamic State (IS) immediately claimed responsibility, and it was soon established that a bomb had been smuggled aboard the aircraft and detonated at 30,000 feet. Putin responded by shifting the focus of the Russian attack in Syria and Iraq to IS.
No sooner had the world absorbed the fact that over 200 innocent air passengers had been subjected to mass murder, than the global media were filled with another horrendous demonstration of bloodlust – the co-ordinated massacre in Paris of 130 people on the night of November 13. Again IS claimed that it was responsible. Just one week later, 170 people were held hostage, and 27 slaughtered, in a hotel in Mali. It is no coincidence that the Malian capital, Bamako, had been a logistics hub for French forces ever since they intervened in 2013 to help Mali’s government defeat an Islamist attempt to take over the country. At the time France’s unilateral intervention – disapproved of by Germany and a swathe of Arab states – seemed to confirm the willingness of recently-elected President François Hollande to be a force opposing terrorism on the world stage.
Following the November 13 outrage, as the French capital and the world reeled at the enormity of the brutal onslaught on innocent civilians, his dignified presence in Paris, and his calm and appropriate reaction aroused admiration for him, sympathy for the people of France, and solidarity with them in their shock and grief.
At the time of the Paris slaughter President Obama happened to be in Turkey, and he gave what could only be described as a lacklustre news conference. He expressed solidarity with France, listed some modest successes in pushing back IS forces in Iraq and Syria, pledged to maintain humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, “and we’ll continue to stand with leaders in Muslim communities, including faith leaders, who are the best voices to discredit ISIL’s warped ideology.” Scarcely a rousing call to arms.
President Hollande, on the other hand, responded vigorously to the assault on his country. He immediately instituted an intensified anti-IS air campaign in Iraq and Syria, authorised hundreds of raids on suspected domestic terrorists, declared a 3-month state of emergency, and proposed changes in the constitution to make France less hospitable to jihad. He then sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2249, drafted by French officials and approved by all 15 members, calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against IS, a group it described as “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security”. Countries were urged to step up sanctions and improve efforts to cut off the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.
In commenting on the Resolution, France’s UN ambassador, Francois Delattre, told the Council that France intended to “scale up its efforts so as to galvanize the international community as a whole, to vanquish our shared enemy.” And that is clearly France’s post-Paris strategy – to rally the irresolute, the uncertain, the doubtful, the indecisive, among which, regretfully, must be numbered not only the US, but also the UK, a goodly proportion of EU members, Turkey and, most obviously, many of the stable and moderate Arab states who stand on the side-lines and, for their own complex reasons, refrain from entering the fray.
Hollande is determined to follow up this series of initiatives by personal persuasion. Two months ago France became the only European country to join US-led strikes in Syria, and the UK government is hovering on the brink of seeking a parliamentary mandate to do the same. However prime minister David Cameron is determined not to repeat the mistake of losing the vote in the House of Commons, a humiliation experienced back in August 2013 when he sought agreement to bomb Assad for employing chemical weapons against his own people.
So on November 23 Hollande hosted a meeting with Cameron in Paris, in part, no doubt, to strengthen the British prime minister’s case by enabling him to claim he has France’s backing. Hollande then flew to Washington where he met Obama to discuss beefing up the US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria. From there he flew on to Moscow to discuss with Putin how their countries’ militaries might work together in an effective anti-IS campaign.
Clearly it is the French president who is taking the proactive lead in rallying a global campaign against the brutal, bloodthirsty and philistine IS organization. Only when IS has been utterly crushed and defeated, and chased out of Iraq and Syria, can its malign appeal to vulnerable Muslim youth the world over be finally snuffed out. To achieve this objective, an increasing number of voices in the US, the UK and elsewhere are arguing that the strategy of “no boots on the ground” will have to be reversed.
Peter R Mansoor is a retired US Army colonel who was executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and who played a key role in the US counter-insurgency strategy in that war. He is now an Ohio State University military history professor.
“The president says the goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy IS,” he said on 17 November, “and yet the amount of resources that he’s applied, and the strategy that he’s fashioned, is not sufficient to get the job done…We need to get serious about actually destroying IS in its homeland in Syria and Iraq, and to put US and European troops on the ground if it’s necessary to accomplish that goal…This administration just isn’t serious about the war in the Middle East.”
It seems pretty clear that France’s President François Hollande leads an administration that is.