Sunday, November 15, 2015

responding to the Paris attacks

Although first reports can be misleading and even quite wrong, it looks as if the terror attacks on Paris were done in the name of and possibly under the control of the so-called Islamic State or ISIL. If so, attacks against ISIL are fully justified.

The outpouring of solidarity with France and sympathy for the victims is similar to the worldwide reaction to the 9/11 attacks. At that time, NATO ministers for the first time invoked article 5 of its founding treaty, the section that obligates all members to respond to an attack on one. As we later learned, that action was take for symbolic and emotional reasons, not as a calculated response nor as part of a military strategy.

As Secretary General Lord Robertson recounted:
We knew that something fundamental had happened and that for the world a new chapter had opened. For us round that table, at the seat of the world’s most successful defence alliance, the sincere sympathy and solidarity expressed with the people of the US was overlaid with thoughts of what all this meant for our organisation and for wider global security.

In the margins of the meeting, my officials led by Assistant Secretary General Edgar Buckley and Private Office Director Jon Day, were already working on what we must urgently do in the face of this attack. One of the most momentous options considered was whether this assault on the US meant invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the self-defence clause. An attack on one state to be considered as an attack on all then 19 NATO countries.

The work on that and on NATO’s wider response was to go on overnight. Then, in the early morning, there were conversations with US Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

I insisted that Article 5 was relevant and was the ultimate act of solidarity with the people of the US. What had the self-defence clause meant if it was not valid at this dramatic moment of aggression?
President Hollande has called the Paris attacks an "act of war." NATO may choose once again to invoke article 5, at least for reasons of solidarity with France. But the substantive response has to be deeper and broader, and not necessarily by  military forces under NATO command. Defeating ISIL requires coalition action in Syria and Iraq, including substantial Arab involvement, as well as security and intelligence cooperation against terrorist threats already embedded in member countries. Those details matter more than the symbolism.

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