Nice Massacre: We Must Wage Total War Against Terrorism

The bullet-spattered truck that was driven into a crowd at high speed killing more than 80 who were celebrating the July 14 Bastille Day national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, on July 15. Danielle Pletka writes that only when attackers begin to lose will the “lone wolves” begin to think better of their choices. “Join the losers” has never been a clarion call to fight. Eric Gaillard/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

We all say we're shocked when attackers spill the blood of men, women and children. And so the ink after Nice will flow generously across the front pages of the world, as it did after Orlando, Brussels, Paris, Dhaka, Istanbul, San Bernardino and on and on and on.

But we're not shocked really. Rather, these attacks have become an almost rote exercise in identity and issue politics.

Twitterati will embrace a trite hashtag and feel warm compassion; political candidates will blame Muslims or guns or Obama or Trump. There will be more stern calls to honestly label the terrorism "Islamic," as if there is some doubt, and more sanctimonious screeds about loving our Muslim brothers.

It's not that these reactions are wrong—at least not all of them; it's that as terrorism becomes a regular feature of our lives, we've become inured to the horror and indifferent about the solution. Terrorism has become just another reason to reach for whatever particular button leaders would have reached for on that day whether an attack had happened or not.

The truth is that Middle East–rooted militancy has been a growing scourge for decades. Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and the many other variants of these Islamist extremists have been killing Americans, Europeans and thousands and thousands of Muslims for too long.

It's not just Syria that is a hotbed that has catapulted the likes of ISIS to the fore; the Islamic Republic of Iran employs violence every day as a regular tool of its foreign policy.

And the honest truth is that the United States has tolerated that violence, whether directed against U.S. troops in Beirut or in the seas off Yemen or on the ground in Saudi Arabia or in Africa, South America, Europe or Asia or at home.

We are fighting, almost casually, three wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria without any clear strategy and, frankly, without any clear goal. "Degrade and destroy" have become meaningless tropes trotted out when a bored reporter wonders why we're still there. But we are not degrading or destroying.

Islamist extremism and terrorism will continue to flourish for as long as they are effective tools, for as long as the price to those who practice that terror is low.

What price does Iran pay for Hezbollah? What price does Qatar pay for supporting Al-Qaeda or its offshoots? Are drone strikes really an adequate response?

Sadly, as the Middle East has spiraled out of control, there is no simple answer. It is not feasible or indeed practical or logical to launch a war in Syria, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and every other militant haven. Sanctions are not going to do the trick, notwithstanding our fondness for wielding that tool.

Rather, we must recognize that we are in a broad, long and dangerous ideological and physical war against a determined, serious, strategically minded enemy and act accordingly. That means finding allies on the ground who wish to defend their nation, their religion and their people as much as we wish to protect ours, and seriously enlisting, training, funding, arming and empowering them to do battle against the enemy.

It means helping them as we have been in places like Iraq, but more seriously, with more firepower and conviction and real military, political and economic goals. Only when attackers and their sponsors begin to lose will the so-called lone wolves begin to think better of their choices. "Join the losers" has never been a clarion call to fight.

This is a column, not a manifesto nor a white paper. The American Enterprise Institute and others will continue to contribute to serious efforts to design a strategy for victory in this long war.

But without leaders who understand that this is less about labels or hashtags or dialogue with the enemy, or burying our heads in the sand, all of our efforts are only so much more ink.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).