OPINION

Alberto Gonzales: The Paris bombings and American leadership

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 16:  Members of the public view candles and tributes left opposite the main entrance of Bataclan concert hall as French police lift the cordon following Fridays terrorist attacks on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France. A Europe-wide one-minute silence was held at 12pm CET today in honour of at least 129 people who were killed last Friday in a series of terror attacks in the French capital.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 16: Members of the public view candles and tributes left opposite the main entrance of Bataclan concert hall as French police lift the cordon following Fridays terrorist attacks on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France. A Europe-wide one-minute silence was held at 12pm CET today in honour of at least 129 people who were killed last Friday in a series of terror attacks in the French capital. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

I stood on the Oval Office porch on the evening of September 11, 2001 and watched as Marine One landed on the South Lawn and brought President George W. Bush home. The President made the fundamental decision that the hijackings and the taking of thousands of innocent lives were more than just crimes, they were acts of war by al-Qaida. 

Working with our allies we have diminished the al-Qaida threat. However, images of the carnage in Paris recently are a tragic reminder of the continuing and growing threat posed by radical Islamic extremists. Similar to President Bush’s response to events in 2001, French President Francois Hollande declared his country is at war with ISIS. France has stepped up military action and appears to be exercising all available authority through its law enforcement and intelligence services. Today it seems all of Europe is on high alert.

The images from France made me angry and left me worried.  The world remains a dangerous place. Next time the bombings may happen in Washington, New York or even my new hometown of Nashville. Our work is not yet finished.

- Hon. Alberto Gonzales

While the United States played the primary role in fighting the war in Afghanistan, we were joined by many countries, France included. We have an obligation now to step up and help our friend. Dealing effectively with ISIS will require the full cooperation, coordination and communication between the United States and our allies, including our respective law enforcement and intelligence agencies. A coordinated and concentrated military effort will be necessary – nothing should be off the table. 

We have learned from dealing with al-Qaida how to fight a non-state actor who wages terror in violation of the laws of war. We should use that knowledge to deal with ISIS in a way to not breed new organizations of terror. This requires American leadership. 

Perhaps the most important constitutional responsibility of a president is to serve as commander in chief and keep our country safe. Some experts insist that ISIS is intent on provoking a major conflict with the West and with Christians in particular. ISIS does not believe in the rule of law, does not share our values and most certainly does not value life. How should the United States deal with such a threat?

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War is unpredictable and messy. I understand a president’s reluctance to respond to a provocation with force and I do not want to see another American soldier wounded or killed. Conflicts should be resolved peacefully if possible, saving previous lives and resources. However, sometimes the enemy leaves no choice.

I worry if the United States fails to provide the necessary military and intelligence support overseas ISIS, or a successor group, will bring the fight to American soil. Terrorists who are motivated by religious beliefs are not going to be deterred by isolated drone strikes, limited tactical operations and covert action. They are coming, it is only a matter of time.

We are in the early stages of selecting our next president who will have to deal with ISIS and, almost certainly, other terrorist organizations. In a time where experience means the most, much of the focus thus far, at least on the Republican side, has been on the fresh faces and political outsiders with little to no substantive governing experience. 

Having observed leadership in the aftermath of the 911 attacks, I believe our commander in chief must be someone who has truly been tested before, someone experienced in decision-making. Many people are capable of receiving a classified briefing and then articulating a cohesive foreign policy or national security strategy. Far fewer are able to successfully implement that strategy. It is easy to talk tough in an election campaign, but a commander in chief must have the fortitude to back up mere talk with tough actions that may be controversial, and be prepared to be confronted by the parents of the sons and daughters who died obeying the president’s orders. 

Too often voters choose a candidate based on promises – just words – without evidence that the candidate has the skills or commitment to make good on those promises. In order to effectively lead the free world the president will need the stature that is earned by a record of achievement and experience. Our enemies will not respect America nor fear a president’s words unless our commander in chief has demonstrated courage and resolve, meaning there is no ambiguity regarding the serious consequences of taking on the United States. 

The images from France made me angry and left me worried. The world remains a dangerous place. Next time the bombings may happen in Washington, New York or even my new hometown of Nashville. Our work is not yet finished. I still believe in American leadership and I hope the events in Paris serve as a wake-up call for the American electorate. 

Alberto R. Gonzales is the former U.S. Attorney General and White House Counsel in the George W. Bush Administration. Presently he is the Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law.  

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