WASHINGTON — The Paris terrorist attacks are forcing a test of President Barack Obama’s ability, near the end of his presidency, to forge a united approach against ISIS among rival nations as he risks leaving office with U.S. military forces enmeshed in an intractable conflict sprawling across Syria, Iraq and Europe.
Whether by design or coincidence, the Paris massacres came the day before Obama left Saturday for Turkey for a summit of the leaders of the world’s biggest economies.
Obama was briefed by his National Security Council before leaving as the slaughter in France put on his plate the questions of whether the United States will step up military action against ISIS — acting alone if a real coalition, with a priority of defeating ISIS, isn’t mustered among nations with disparate interests in Syria and Iraq.
“The G-20 agenda has been hijacked by ISIS,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former Obama State Department undersecretary, using the nickname for the Group of 20 global group.
“Nobody’s briefing book had Paris in it 24, 48 hours ago,” Sonenshine said Saturday. “The administration needs a terrorism deliverable out of this meeting.”
As the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, claimed responsibility Saturday for the Paris massacres, former State Department and White House officials outlined a range of scenarios, all of them difficult, facing the Obama team in the short and long term.
“No. 1 is security in the homeland,” said Ben Chang, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama and Bush administrations.
“Two, security of our interests and people overseas,” Chang said. “No. 3, what can we do to help the French; and four, how do we guide the conversation in Turkey, both around the G-20 table but also on the sides, on the margins, as they say, to figure out how to respond, ideally in a collective way.”
A former White House official said Obama “does not want to leave office in 14 months and have 100,000 troops somewhere, with a death count going up.”
The Paris attacks are now expected to dominate the G-20, with these issues on Obama’s agenda:
• Securing the U.S. The French were blindsided by the multiple attacks, a massive intelligence failure.
After the National Security Council meeting, the White House said the latest intelligence shows “no specific or credible threat” to the U.S. at this point in the wake of the attacks but that the administration is reviewing “our homeland security posture to ensure we are doing everything necessary to protect the American people.”
This comes as the Obama White House has stepped up domestic surveillance, according to a former Department of Homeland Security official. Also, on Nov. 7 the DHS added security at some international airports for flights to the United States after a Russian plane crashed in Egypt, probably destroyed by a bomb.
• Growing a ground war — the last thing Obama ever wanted.
Combating ISIS is complicated by ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Obama ordered a few dozen special operations troops in to Syria on Oct. 30 to fight ISIS, with the White House saying they would amount to “fewer than 50.” Obama could send in more ground forces, and, as he has done before, not ask Congress for explicit permission.
• Pushing for NATO involvement or building up the current coalition. France would have to ask NATO to invoke “Article 5” in the treaty, which says an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.
“We have a number of NATO countries that are involved in air campaigns in Iraq but not in Syria,” said Ivo Dalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“And I think one of the big issues now is the question of whether that artificial limitation needs to be erased.,” Dalder said. “ISIS doesn’t respect borders, and therefore our response shouldn’t respect those borders.”
If Obama decides to take a lead on pursuing a NATO option, “The world would have a more coherent set of actors who all focus their attention on ISIS no matter where it is,” Dalder said.