By Frank Bruni
New York Times News Service=
I don't know how we win the war against ISIS.
But I know how we lose it. The last week has been a thorough and demoralizing education in that.
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We lose it with a response to the Paris carnage and a discussion about the path forward that's driven by partisan grievances and posturing rather than a mature, nuanced attempt to address Americans' understandable anxiety and acknowledge that we may not be doing the right things or enough of them.
We lose it if President Barack Obama can't shake off his annoyance with critics and his disgust with some prominent Republicans' xenophobic pandering long enough to re-examine his strategy and recognize that many Americans' doubts about it are warranted and earnest.
He was at his worst just after the Paris attacks, when he communicated as much irritation with the second-guessing of his stewardship as he did outrage over Paris and determination to destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS.
He owed us something different, something more. He'd just said, the day before Paris, that ISIS was contained and that it was weakening, so there was an onus on him to make abundantly clear that he grasped the magnitude of the threat and was intensely focused on it.
From Obama we needed fire. Instead we got embers, along with the un-presidential portrayal of Republicans as sniveling wimps whose fears about refugees were akin to their complaints about tough debate questions.
This wasn't the time for catcalls, from either party. This isn't the time.
"We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria," the president said. That indeed had to be spelled out, and he's entirely correct.
But we also can't indulge in wishful thinking, and worries that we're doing that aren't solely the province of Republicans. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has registered doubts about our response to ISIS, qualms about refugees. So have other leading Democrats, to varying extents.
Senior administration officials, including the FBI director, James Comey, have conceded risks to admitting Syrian refugees and challenges in vetting them. And a majority of Americans oppose letting them in, according to a recent Bloomberg Politics poll.
Obama doesn't have to agree with that. I think he's right to push back, in part because there's no common-sense reason to believe that a terrorist is as likely to enter the United States amid those screened refugees as by crossing the Mexican border, which was apparently the intent of the five Syrians with stolen, doctored Greek passports who were stopped in Honduras last week.
But he must take public sentiment into account and heed other politicians' apprehensions as he chooses his words and calibrates his tone. The way to get beyond any reflexive, visceral panic after Paris isn't to mock and belittle it. It's to explain, with gravity and respect, why certain courses of action would be imprudent and how they'd contradict the very American principles that we intend to be a stirring example to the world.
Principles like pluralism. We lose the war against ISIS if the bloodshed in Paris -- or in Beirut -- becomes fertile soil for bad ideas like religious litmus tests for refugees or religious litmus tests in general.
No, Donald Trump, we should not be closing mosques and registering Muslims. Those are the repressive, regressive methods of our enemies. No, Ted Cruz, we should not be admitting only Christian refugees.
Answer this: How can the religion of a refugee or anyone else be definitively determined? Zealotry isn't in the outfit someone wears or the text he or she carries. It resides in the heart, beyond view and detection.
John Kasich, I know you're floundering in the presidential race, reaching a peak of exasperation and rightly wondering why Republican voters won't see that you'd be a far better adversary for the Democratic nominee than Trump or Ben Carson would.
But the answer isn't silly oratorical theater like your proposal last week for a new federal agency to promote Judeo-Christian values. I could write tens of thousands of words about the wrongheadedness of that, but Lindsey Graham did just fine with six words about Kasich's plan.
"I think that was the Crusades," Graham said.
We lose the war against ISIS if we don't get serious about our presidential candidates. How much more garbage and nonsense do Trump and Carson have to spew before the people supporting them wake up, grow up and realize that it matters greatly who our next commander in chief is? The most recent national polls suggest that Trump's perch atop the Republican field is secure.
But will Carson be sidelined by accumulating evidence that he knows nothing about foreign affairs, is learning nothing and, as one unnamed Republican insider joked to Politico last week, "thinks the Kurds are a special kind of Wisconsin cheese"? There are hints that he's losing ground -- and that Cruz is gaining it -- but it's too soon to tell. For some of Carson's fans, his constant invocations of God are enough. These voters apparently itch to inaugurate a pastor in chief.
But we must elect someone infinitely better prepared than Carson. We must elect someone a million times less rash and cavalier than Trump. We must elect someone more logical than ideological.
And some good could come of this sorrowful juncture if it prompts voters to listen with extra care and extra skepticism to the men and women vying to lead us in this era of great uncertainty.
We lose the war against ISIS if we become too distracted and consoled by the hunt for the masterminds of a given plot, for the terrorists whose names we know. News coverage lavishes attention on that, but we must remember that we got Osama bin Laden, we've used drones and airstrikes to take out specific ISIS targets, and here we are, burying and grieving scores of Parisians.
And that's because ISIS isn't about a finite pantheon of ruthless puppeteers. It's about a region in violent disarray, a culture in crisis and all sorts of brutal crosscurrents that no drone alone can address. Our assault on ISIS must be multifaceted, and it was good at least to hear an appreciation of that in Hillary Clinton's speech on Thursday.
We lose the war against ISIS by being simplistic. We lose it by letting emotion overtake reason.
And we lose it by turning so far inward, so fully against one another and so far away from our ideals that what we're protecting is no longer what we think it is. We lose the war against ISIS by losing ourselves.
That's how ISIS defeats us.