I don't like where this is headed.
I don't like it at all.
It's been 13 years since 9/11, and in spite of the blood spilled and the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, by this country and others, we have by no means wiped out the threat of terrorism.
We weakened – but didn't destroy – Al Qaeda. Now radical Islamists known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Greater Syria), are killing people, videotaping beheadings, taking over part of Iraq, and recruiting future terrorists from Europe and the US.
This is a world in which scary people are doing very scary things. And war enthusiasts to the contrary, there's little reason to believe that if we were to snuff out ISIS, such threats would be a thing of the past.
On the eve of yet another observance of 9/11, President Obama outlined his plan for dealing with ISIS. "America," he said, "will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat." And he promised to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" ISIS.
But Obama's strategy is full of risk and uncertainty. He plans a "systematic campaign of airstrikes" in Iraq and perhaps Syria. The US will increase its support to the Syrian-rebel and Iraqi forces already fighting ISIS in those countries. He has no intention, he says, of sending American ground forces into Iraq or Syria.
But leaving aside the civilian casualties that will certainly occur, airstrikes alone won't be enough to destroy ISIS. Success will depend heavily on those Syrian and Iraqi forces on the ground. And they are weak, divided, and unpredictable.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham warned on Sunday that it's a "fantasy" to think we can be successful without sending in US ground forces. I suspect he's right. Worse, I suspect Obama thinks so, too.
Obama promised that he is building a broad coalition to join us. Both France and Australia have said they'll participate in the airstrikes. And the Obama administration said on Sunday that "several" Arab countries have said they'll engage in airstrikes, although the administration hasn't said which ones.
Participation by Arab nations is critical, and Obama faces an enormous challenge dealing with the countries in that region.
Saudi Arabian leaders have said they will help train and equip Syrian moderates, but many young Saudis are joining ISIS. Wealthy people, mosques, and organizations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have been helping fund ISIS.
The Obama administration, the Times reported on Sunday, hasn't been able to persuade Turkey to get tough on ISIS black-market sales of oil. And on Monday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran would not take part in any US-led action. The United States, he said, has "dirty intentions and hands."
This is complicated almost beyond belief. The roots of the ISIS story are buried deep within religious history, civil conflicts, international politics, ineffective governments, poverty....
Our friends of yesterday are enemies today. (Or not. We're on the same side as ISIS on one thing: ISIS wants Bashar al-Assad gone, and we do too. But we want ISIS gone. And so does Assad.)
The US Congress is deeply divided on many things, but I'd bet that despite the risks, more than a majority of its members are willing to approve airstrikes. And as Stephen Zunes wrote recently on Progressive.org, limited strikes are sometimes necessary to protect people from genocide. But, he added, "it is important to remember that the United States has been bombing Iraq for nearly a quarter century and things have only gotten worse for the people of Iraq and for the security interests of Iraq's neighbors and ultimately for the United States."
As for arming Iraqis in their fight against ISIS: "As with the Thieu regime in South Vietnam in the 1970's," Zunes wrote, "the United States can provide all the arming and training of an allied armed force it wants, but if people aren't willing to fight and die for the regime, they cannot win."
And that's part of the problem in Iraq right now.
And, Zunes added, "massive" military force by the West "might create a backlash that could strengthen political support for the extremists."
Still, in the face of an evil like ISIS, don't we have to do something? The temptation to push for armed force is strong, in all of us. The threat – to stability in the Middle East, if not to our very selves – seems real. That people are suffering is a fact. In the face of such things, military action provides exactly the emotional security we seek.
And taking swift and forceful short-term action now, leaving the long-term consequences for later, seems safer than risking the dangers of slow, perhaps ineffective action.
It does not help that critical mid-term elections are a few weeks away, and every politician's statement is crafted with those elections in mind.
The drumbeat for action – "the voices counseling panic," as Paul Waldman put it in the Washington Post earlier this month – will continue, as reports of more atrocities hit the news.
"Forget about understanding the complexities of an intricate situation," Waldman wrote, "forget about unintended consequences, forget about the disasters of the past that grew from exactly this mind-set. We have to panic now."
Some people are more confident than I am when they talk about our options with ISIS. Texas Senator Ted Cruz wants us to "bomb them back to the Stone Age." Florida's Marco Rubio, who blames Obama for letting ISIS take root by not intervening in Syria's civil war, says that now we have to destroy ISIS and that we "cannot rule anything out." Some liberal commentators are convinced that diplomatic efforts alone are the answer.
At this point, I don't know what we should do. I am sure of one thing, though: Even if legally, Obama doesn't need Congressional approval of his plan, he needs it politically, and the country needs it.
The president has made it clear that he anticipates a lengthy involvement. And it will be full of risks. Given that, Americans need, and deserve, a thorough, public debate on the topics like these:
• Exactly what the risks are: the risks of both action and inaction.
• Why we're going to do what Obama plans.
• What the threat from ISIS really is – and if it is a threat to the United States, what the evidence is.
• How our action will affect our ability to deal with such challenges as Vladimir Putin's muscle-flexing; China's muscle-flexing; Ebola and other humanitarian crises; the increasing threat of cyber attacks; and our own enormous domestic needs.
• What involvement we expect, on all of the non-domestic fronts on that list, from other nations.
• What we will do if the Iraqi and Syrian-rebel troops aren't able to defeat ISIS on the ground, despite our airstrikes.
• What we will do if we destroy ISIS but find that civil strife continues in Iraq and Syria, generating chaos, pain, and new terrorists.
• Specifically what will define success – and what we'll do if we haven't achieved success in three years. Or five years. Or....
Obama and the nation need that kind of discussion, so that we all understand what's happening, and so that he has a united nation behind him in whatever action he takes.
Instead, members of Congress will spend the next month and a half campaigning, slinging mud and exaggerating and simplifying complex issues.
Meantime, with or without Congressional approval, President Obama is prepared to act. The result could be a lessening or eradication of the ISIS threat. Or it could be the first stage of another decade-long, enormously expensive war.
With more explanation and evidence, I might be convinced that the president's plan is the right one, and that it will be successful. At this moment, I'm not.
We have not built a great record when we have intervened in countries that have not attacked us. Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq seem to have taught us little. As we ramp up yet another war, we'll have to hope that President Obama has outlined the right response to terrorism. Because whatever the result, this won't be the last time we'll be wrestling with this kind of challenge.
It's likely that the masked fighters of ISIS are showing us the new face of war.