Fight ISIS, without adding U.S. troops

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says regional powers such as Jordan and Turkey can do more to fight ISIS.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says regional powers such as Jordan and Turkey can do more to fight ISIS. AP

When President Barack Obama announced an international campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State last year, the organization was primarily a regional threat. But the coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and the downing of a Russian airliner suggest that the organization has embarked on a campaign of exporting terror globally.

In response to those spasms of wanton killing, the United Nations Security Council has approved a resolution urging countries around the world to take “all necessary measures” to prevent terrorist acts by the Islamic State and similar groups.

What should that mean for U.S. policy? We have specifically rejected — and still oppose — a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that the U.S. deploy 10,000 troops to the region.

But the United States and its allies can and should increase the pressure on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recognition of the group’s expanding agenda, and without committing the United States to provide “boots on the ground.” The administration reportedly is considering tripling the 50 special-operations forces Mr. Obama has said he will dispatch to Syria, and the Pentagon may increase the frequency and severity of U.S. airstrikes, especially those targeting oil facilities, which provide a source of revenue for ISIS.

In a thoughtful speech recently on the campaign trail, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for regional powers such as Jordan and Turkey to play a larger role in combating the Islamic State. But she also suggested a more-flexible role for the more than 3,000 U.S. forces now serving in Iraq as trainers and advisers. She would allow U.S. personnel to be embedded with Iraqi units and to help call in airstrikes. Admittedly, such a change in posture would increase the risk that U.S. forces would come under fire, but it also could improve the effectiveness of operations against Islamic State strongholds.

There are two main objections to the United States ratcheting up its military involvement. One is that it will be too incremental to make much difference in the war zone. That’s true of any limited use of U.S. power, yet it’s not a persuasive argument for the United States waging another ground war in the Middle East.

A related concern is that, if these steps fall short, Mr. Obama and his military advisers eventually will be tempted to escalate further. This is the familiar “quagmire” argument, and it can’t be blithely dismissed. But it’s also a rationale for taking no action, ever. A better safeguard would be for Congress to adopt an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State that would hold Mr. Obama to his promise that he won’t deploy combat troops in the region.

Finally, reducing the influence of the Islamic State also will require efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters to the Middle East, prevent the radicalization of young people and block the funding of terrorist organizations. Military force is an important part of the equation — especially when it comes to depriving the Islamic State of territory from which it can instigate attacks — but it will not, by itself, counter the group’s influence.

Mr. Obama has made an increasingly serious effort to counter the Islamic State, even when that involved military action that he once might have opposed. That doesn’t mean, however, that more can’t be done.

A longer version of this editorial was originally published in The Los Angeles Times.