After Paris, San Bernardino and almost every terrorist attack, politicians and pundits clamor for the U.S. to do more militarily in the Middle East, spend more on national defense, and further restrict our liberties in the name of keeping us safe. But that is exactly what ISIS wants us to do. Given that, the U.S. should think twice about playing the game their way.
Many now want the U.S. to respond by deepening our military engagement in Iraq and Syria. They see additional American boots on the ground as the silver bullet for defeating ISIS. For many of these military adventurists, American soldiers are always the answer – the proverbial hammer that sees everything as a nail.
But are more U.S. boots on the ground really the answer? Graeme Wood, in a widely discussed piece in The Atlantic, learned from his interviews with radical Islamists that ISIS actually wants more Americans in the line of fire. More GIs in Iraq and Syria mean more targets for ISIS, and a greater foreign presence inflames anti-American sentiment to their benefit.
President Obama was right when he told the nation that radical groups like ISIS “know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.” This is exactly what happened in Iraq and the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre. Therefore, we should avoid giving ISIS what it wants and let local actors help themselves (and us) by leading the fight. Actively engaging on the ground ourselves would also undermine the incentive of locals to step up to defend their interests.
As for increased defense spending, how will this defeat anti-American terrorists?
Even before the recent attacks, Congress and the president cooperated to bust the bipartisan budget spending caps, in part, to allow for a significant increase in defense spending.
But effectively fighting terrorism doesn’t require breaking the bank. It requires smart investments in the types of personnel, training and weapons needed to confront the threats we face today.
Unfortunately, a lot of spending in the defense budget is unrelated to those threats. So, we have a mismatch between our needs and our forces. For example, we’ve spent billions on the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and on the ill-conceived and ultimately canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, neither of which will do much to defeat ISIS.
Indeed, our fiscal house is dangerously out of order. And this budget mess led former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen to warn that our fiscal problems represent the greatest national security threat to our country. Given that, we cannot keep raising military spending in a knee-jerk fashion when such terrible tragedies occur.
Finally, first the Paris and then the San Bernardino attacks have driven some proposals to embrace extreme measures in the name of increasing security. For example, various proposals would have us subject mosques here to greater surveillance, expand watch lists of suspected Muslim-Americans and compile a database of Muslims in the U.S. (to say nothing of the recent call to ban all Muslims, including American citizens abroad, from entering the country).
But is shredding the constitutional rights of Muslim-Americans really necessary to prevent a repeat of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks? The answer is “no.” First, comparing the situation of Muslims in Europe and the United States is like comparing apples and oranges, the recent attack in California notwithstanding. Many European Muslims are deeply alienated from the societies in which they live. Only 41 percent of Muslims in Paris viewed themselves as French, according to a recent Open Society survey. In contrast, a Pew Research Center poll found a majority of American Muslims satisfied with things in the United States. Indeed, they were far more satisfied than the average American in this regard.
There could be many reasons for this difference, but in Europe Muslims face a militantly secular political climate with bans on certain religious expression. The United States is also a secular state, but our approach of separating church and state was intended, and functions, to protect the religious liberty of all citizens. Our official toleration and active (indeed, constitutionally enshrined) promotion of religious freedom is a vital recipe for healthy interfaith relations. That may also explain why most Muslim-Americans feel quite at home here compared to how so many religious minorities feel in other places in the world. The San Bernardino attack has further fanned the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment. And that is precisely what ISIS is hoping for.
The worst thing, from their perspective, is the overwhelmingly moderate and integrated Muslim population in America, which is why they are calling for lone (or coupled) wolves to engage in such desperate acts of terror.
The best way to fight the ISIS threat is not to restrict freedom or get us bogged down in places far from home. We should do it the American, not ISIS’s, way; with prudence, efficiency and liberty.
(William Ruger is the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.)