What a Debate Over Fighting ISIS Looks Like

Turn to the United Kingdom, not the United States

The scene outside Parliament in London on December 2 (Neil Hall / Reuters)

The Obama administration likes to boast that it has assembled a formidable coalition of some 65 nations to battle ISIS, but that coalition shrivels when you examine what the United States and its allies are actually doing on the ground and in the air. In Syria, for example, the United States has so far conducted 95 percent of air strikes against Islamic State targets. In Iraq, that figure is 69 percent. More than 50 members of the coalition have never conducted an air strike; some of the members that have haven’t done so in months. Only the U.S. is deploying special-operations troops on apparent (if not explicit) combat missions. The Defense Department just announced a fresh deployment of such forces on Tuesday.

Which makes it all the more surprising that it is in the United Kingdom, not the United States, where an intense debate is taking place this week about the merits and limits of waging war against ISIS. Nearly 500 days into the U.S. military’s $5-billion campaign against the jihadist group, my colleague Nora Kelly notes that a divided, dithering Congress has yet to heed requests from the White House to debate and vote on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State. “Congress remains no closer to reckoning with its constitutional obligations than it was months ago,” she wrote on Tuesday.

Meanwhile in Britain—the second-largest contributor to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, conducting 8 percent of strikes there—the House of Commons has devoted more than 10 hours today to debating whether the U.K. should expand its air strikes to Syria following the terrorist attacks in Paris. When the discussion concludes, lawmakers will vote on a motion stating that ISIS “poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom,” pledging that the government will “not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations,” and offering support for “Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria” on the “clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter.” (Parliament approved air strikes in Iraq in September 2014.)

The motion is likely to pass, but it’s proven controversial enough in recent days to split the opposition Labour Party (Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, opposes the strikes but has grudgingly permitted his rank-and-file to vote as they wish); move Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to accuse Corbyn and his allies of being “terrorist sympathizers”; prompt a sharp drop in public support for extending Britain’s air campaign to Syria (roughly half of Britons now support the escalation); and whip the media into a frenzy.

Here’s how Cameron opened the debate in Parliament on Wednesday:

There is a simple question at the heart of the debate today. We face a fundamental threat to our security.

ISIL have brutally murdered British hostages. They’ve inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia, and they’ve plotted atrocity after atrocity on the streets here at home. Since November last year our security services have foiled no fewer than seven different plots against our people. So this threat is very real.

And the question is this: Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat? And do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?

Corbyn, for his part, argued that British air strikes in Syria will be ineffective and even dangerously counterproductive, killing innocent civilians, endangering British soldiers, increasing the threat of terrorism back home, and marking “another ill-fated twist in the never-ending war on terror.” He continued:

The specter of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya looms over this debate.

To oppose another reckless and half-baked intervention isn’t pacifism. It’s hard-headed common sense. To resist ISIL’s determination to draw the Western powers back into the heart of the Middle East isn’t to turn our backs on allies. It’s to refuse to play into the hands of ISIL.

It’s wrong for us here in Westminster to see a problem, pass a motion, and drop the bombs pretending we’re doing something to solve it. That’s what we did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Has terrorism increased or decreased as a result? …

Only a negotiated peace settlement can overcome the ISIL threat in Syria. And that should be our overriding goal.

You can watch highlights from the political sparring here:

And you can check out the remaining hours of the debate below:

Or you can head over to the U.S. House of Representatives, where hearings are being held today on ISIS’s strategy in Europe and Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. As for the president’s strategy against ISIS? That debate will have to wait for another day.