The ISIS-linked terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday will inspire plenty of hardline rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, but experts on terrorism and U.S. Middle East policy warned that the country shouldn’t expect anything except an incremental change in in how American authorities approach security at home or the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, after backing off his promise to send US troops to fight ISIS, said that he would recruit up to 30,000 troops from unspecified other countries to battle the terror group. He also called for changing US law to allow American officials to torture terrorist prisoners for information. In a conversation with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump said terror suspects would cooperate “a lot faster with the torture.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Tuesday called for US police departments to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods in American cities. On Tuesday night, he restated his call for the US military to “carpet bomb” ISIS in the Middle East.
On the question of whether Brussels will spur an actual change in US troop levels or military activity against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, experts were uniformly skeptical.
“Another incremental increase in effort is the most likely outcome,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution. “That may be adequate in Iraq at least in military terms. It is not adequate in Syria, in my eyes.”
Others were even more doubtful.
“I think we have heard [Defense] Secretary Carter say they have a plan in place that they think will be successful by the time the president leaves office,” said Blaise Misztal, director of the National Security Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. The plan is based on training and developing trust with local forces on the ground, and can’t be rushed, he said.
“If you go in and try to clear cities with either forces you don’t trust or forces you think aren’t up to the task, that could prove disastrous,” Misztal said. “So, short of doing things that President Obama has said he’s clearly not prepared to do, which is using U.S. forces, I don’t think that they’re likely to yield to political pressure to step up fighting, or the timetable they already have for fighting in Iraq and Syria.”
Likewise, calls for some sort of massive influx of new non-US troops, or the arming of groups within Syria strike experts as unrealistic.
“There is broad consensus -- outside the office of Sen. John McCain – that there is no real moderate opposition inside Syria, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former Pentagon official with the George W. Bush administration. “There is no good option. These things are a lot easier to talk about in campaign rhetoric than in the Oval Office.”
Rubin said that when it comes to domestic counter-terrorism policy, he’s also skeptical about Brussels inspiring huge changes. If the attacks in Brussels spur a conversation about anything, he said, one fruitful topic might be the United States’ current visa waiver program, which allows citizens of certain countries to visit the US without a visa.
“Once upon a time there was an impression that a passport not only defined nationality, but was also a good predictor of values,” he said. The attacks in Brussels, and last year in Paris, by men who were radicalized citizens of those countries, shows that that is no longer a safe assumption.
“Fundamentally, there’s the question of whether or not one of the biggest vulnerabilities we face is that someone who has a European passport, but might not hold European values of progressivity and tolerance, might be able to get into the country.”
European countries routinely share passenger manifests of US-bound flights, he said, but pointed out that the French and Belgian authorities, for example, have both demonstrated that their internal security services are not up to the task of identifying and monitoring terror suspects.
One option, Rubin said, would be for the US to scrap the visa waiver program while simultaneously taking the visa application process online, in order to make it less burdensome for travelers.
Considering the home-grown nature of the attacks in Brussels and Paris, Rubin said that he would also not be surprised to see policymakers considering a “recalibration” of the policy of law enforcement surveillance mosques and Muslim community centers in the US.
However, Rubin made clear he was not endorsing the application of some sort of special security regime to Muslim neighborhoods, as Sen. Cruz appeared to suggest on Tuesday. In fact, there was broad pushback against such an idea from both local and federal officials.
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told NBC News: on Cruz and Trump’s comments, “I do think we need to have an adult conversation about the role of Islam, and the civil war within Islam, but the main point here is that in the United States we may have radicalized individuals, but we do not have radicalized communities. We have it within our ability to create radicalized communities and some of the rhetoric in the presidential campaign trends us towards that great, great problem.”
Speaking to reporters in Buenos Aires, Argentina early Wednesday afternoon, Obama said that defeating ISIS and protecting national security was his number one priority, but appeared to confirm that his administration will stick to its current approach in the Middle East.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate, but my top priority is to defeat ISIL and to eliminate the scourge of this barbaric terrorism that’s been taking place around the world,” he said. “And we see high profile attacks in Europe, but they are also killing Muslims throughout the Middle East. People who are innocent, people who are guilty only of worshipping Islam in a different way than this organization. They are poisoning the minds of young people everywhere, not just in Europe but the United States and probably Argentina.”
The main issue is, he added, “How do we do it in an intelligent way? And our approach has been continuously to adjust to see what works, and what doesn’t.”