Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

Secretary of State Kerry said of Friday’s terror attack in Paris, “These are heinous, evil, vile acts. Those of us who can must do everything in our power to fight back against what can only be considered an assault on our common humanity.” President Obama used the phrase “common humanity” as well.

They are wrong.

“Heinous, evil, vile” yes; but there is no “common humanity” with ISIS and their ilk. The attack in Paris was an attack on Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, which, in simple terms, is a modern standard of tolerance. President Obama actually called it, “liberte, egalite and the pursuit of happiness.” It was felicitous a slip of the tongue. To have liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness as government policy -- whatever our personal social, ethnic or religious differences -- requires tolerance. And tolerance is the specific contribution to humanity of Western democratic liberal governance. It is the antithesis of what Prime Minister Netanyahu called “medievalism” when he was in Washington last week. It is that which is under attack in the Middle East; that which was attacked in France.

(Obligatory disclaimer for those who are about to find fault with the West: NO, we did not invent tolerance, No we are not always tolerant ourselves, and yes others can be tolerant.  We don’t call America a “practicing democracy” for nothing -- after nearly 240 years, we’re still practicing. But it was the West that first posited, as the basis for governance, rights for the individual “endowed by our Creator,” not gifted by the king or based on individual attributes or tribute paid. These require tolerance under a secular government and represent an advance for humankind, however imperfectly they are employed.)

There is no tolerance for “the other” in ISIS. Or in al-Qaeda or in the Taliban. There is no tolerance in the Islamic Republic of Iran for the social “other” – homosexuals are hanged; women are denied public space and chased by the “modesty police”; free-thinkers, Christian pastors, journalists, and poets are jailed and sentenced to lashes. Saudi Arabia is no better on women or political opposition; Turkey is better on women but not on journalists. Qatar uses imported slaves. Abu Mazen’s condolences are hypocritical, coming from a man who jails journalists and renegade Facebook users, and blames Mossad for the Paris attack. There is no Palestinian tolerance for a Jewish holy site in the West Bank (Joseph's Tomb was firebombed) or a Jewish connection even to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Negation of the Jewish people is not a Western value, though it has been practiced in the West.   

When ISIS was confined -- we thought -- to Iraq, it was enough to “plink” their leaders and prevent them (at least temporarily) from moving south. We thought we had time to train three armies: one of “moderate” Syrian rebels; one of Iraqi regional forces; plus the Iraqi army. We thought we had time to work out a political settlement in Syria in order to turn everyone’s attention to ISIS. We thought it was okay to separate Palestinian terrorism from “other” terrorism – to pretend some terrorists could be satisfied. There was even time for climate change.  

Now, after the shooting down of a Russian airplane (224 civilian deaths) and the carnage in Paris (128 dead and more than 300 injured, many critically), we do not have the luxury of time.

The border between Turkey and ISIS territory must be closed -- those coming in and those going out both pose a threat. The territory ISIS holds must be reduced quickly. ISIS is not a state, but the notion of a Caliphate relies on expansion and cooptation of local residents to an Islamic State. Losing large swaths of territory to “infidels” would be a big blow to its prestige.

Francois Hollande’s righteous wrath on Friday presages deeper French military involvement; the French already have 3,200 soldiers in Iraq and more than 6,000 elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. (It’s hard to recognize him as the man who castigated American “hyperpower” as the cause of terrorism -- and that is to our common benefit.) But the American response is thus far tepid. The President demands that the perpetrators be brought to justice -- although most are already dead -- and doesn’t believe American strategy, whatever it is, should change. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton said that while “American leadership is essential,” she added, “I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility.”

Maybe we do; maybe we don’t. We didn’t bear the bulk of responsibility for Hitler, either, but there was a world that needed saving. The United States has a military capability that is needed in the fight and needed now. Someone once said, “You go to war with the army you have; not the army you want.” We may want an Iraqi army or a Syrian rebel one or a Kurdish one, but we don’t have them. We have an American army, a French army, a Russian army (?), a NATO army and various other permutations of military force. We should be organizing which of them to use and how best to use them. There is intelligence from all of them, from Israel, from the Kurds, and from Egypt. We should be using all of it, openly and with gratitude.

When West Point football players took the field Saturday, they ran on with a large American flag, as usual -- followed by a large French flag.

If you want to understand the war we are fighting -- there are those whose flags Americans can proudly fly and there are others; there are modern rules and there are medieval rules; there are tolerant rulers and intolerant rulers. There is our side of the great divide and there is their side.

Pick one.