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Editorial: Terrorism fight for US is a battle not joined
While France becomes aggressor in fighting terrorists, American leaders dither and bicker
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Two women stand outside the Petit Cambodge restaurant, a site of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. - photo by Daniel Ochoa de Olza

Pas Peur” read the sign last week at a Paris rally. Not afraid.

The French often get teased for their lack of a warlike demeanor and tendency to uncork a bottle of wine rather than take up arms or work into the night. But say this about them: They don’t scare easily, nor do they back down an inch when their way of life is threatened.

Following last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, France were willing to take the lead in confronting the band of extremist murderers who planned them. Its president, Francois Hollande, used phrases U.S. leaders avoid, saying “we are at war” with Muslim extremists.

Now Americans must ask, of ourselves and our leaders: When are we going to fully join this battle and wipe this scourge from the earth?

The French did their part, launching a series of heavy airstrikes at Islamic State strongholds while their SWAT teams at home hunted down and killed or arrested several linked to the group that planned the attacks. Even Russia got in on the act with a raid to avenge the bombing of its jet over Egypt. When attacked, both nations struck back hard.

And what is the U.S. doing? Other than occasional airstrikes or drone attacks, mostly waiting for the bad guys to go away. We’re not sure what playbook this came from, but it is not the American way.

Granted, fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups is complicated. Fourteen years of war in Afghanistan and a dozen in Iraq yielded only temporary victories, cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and rendered two loosely governed nations into fractured chaos. Yet one lesson from each is the same learned in Vietnam: Fighting a war with one hand behind your back leads to a slow, difficult slog. That’s especially true against a determined enemy who slinks in the shadows and relies on fifth column operatives to strike at civilians. It’s like killing ants with a sledgehammer.

Even after some victories, the serpent grows a new head and strikes again. The day before the Paris attacks, the U.S. confirmed the killing of Islamic State figure “Jihadi John,” who had narrated videotaped beheadings of hostages. Yet plenty of others remain in their rabbit holes planning the next wave of mayhem.

The debate over how to wage such a war is a worthwhile discussion for serious people to have. Do we commit ground troops? Are airstrikes enough? Can we effectively train others to fight effectively? The answers aren’t easy to come by, and anyone who pretends to have them all is selling a bill of goods.

Though the nation may be war-weary and hesitant to send our soldiers back into harm’s way, even as we struggle to care for those who have returned home, it’s worth noting that avoiding a war sometimes merely delays it. If the enemy can’t be silenced through other means, it is the last, but sometimes only, resort.

Even then, two things are missing: One is the will to wage total war and win it, the “shock and awe” of overwhelming force seldom used since Normandy or Okinawa. Whatever the strategy, it needs to be backed by a full commitment to see it through.

It starts with acknowledging we are at war, as the French did. Instead, President Barack Obama shrugs it off and settles for half measures, treating terrorists as a mere nuisance, a college dean scoffing at student agitators. The man whose only executive experience before taking office came as a community organizer seems perturbed at having to solve the world’s problems rather than focus on his domestic agenda.

The other thing missing from such a war is finding those serious people to wage it. The dozen or so candidates seeking Obama’s job offer less collective foreign policy know-how than one of Henry Kissinger’s suitcases, and it shows in the nonsensical solutions some offer. Most target such earth-shattering concerns as Planned Parenthood funding or minimum wage hikes than securing the nation. One would rather declare war on Wall Street bankers than ISIS killers. The candidate with the most international experience is Obama’s former secretary of state, a partner to many of his weak policies.

Americans have state and local governments to fill the potholes. Only a true commander in chief can rally the nation in times of crisis and mobilize the forces needed to keep us safe.

Now both sides stake out extreme positions over whether to allow Syrian refugees into the country, leaving two stark options: Let ’em all in or slam the door in their faces. Common sense would dictate compassion for these poor souls but also tougher screening using the Titanic lifeboat theory: Women and children first; let in families, weed out the single male loners. Even then, we need to be realistic and realize potential terrorists will get in regardless. A country with thousands of miles of coastline and borders and hundreds of airports can’t just pull up the drawbridge over the moat and keep them all out.

Here’s an even better idea: If we channeled energies toward making Syria safe again, Syrians someday could stay in their homeland. The U.S. had a chance to do so years ago and didn’t act decisively, proving how inaction often leads to greater peril down the road.

Next year, we will elect a new president, ideally one who more readily accepts the United States’ historic global role as a pacesetter in the fight for freedom against despotic regimes and violent cabals. We hope such a person emerges and our nation will again lead — and not just follow in the wake of the French.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

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