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On ISIS, U.S. must lead from the front

Contrary to the president’s assertion, ISIS does indeed pose a “mortal” threat to the United States. That threat is real and it is imminent.

The lineup was impressive. During the past week Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Diane Feinstein, Mike Vickers, Mike Flynn — even Hillary Clinton — all took shots at Barack Obama's strategy to defeat ISIS. Or to be more precise, they correctly noted the absence of such a strategy.

In the face of this bipartisan criticism from defense and intelligence heavyweights, President Obama has relentlessly continued his smug, morally superior, emotionally contained, intellectually detached impersonation of Neville Chamberlain. Our president really, really doesn't want us to be drawn into an avoidable conflict. Let someone else do the fighting. And above all, we must not "overreact" to the tragic loss of life in Paris.

But rest assured, ISIS has been "contained."  Because he says so.

The true danger to global security, the president has concluded, lies within the very core of our national character — We the People are prone to racism, religious bigotry, "right wing" extremism, and gun-toting violence. Every war is a potential Vietnam. Every administration critic is a Joe McCarthy. Every police officer is a presumed Bull Connor. And so Barack Obama's mission in life is to courageously confront his own country's arrogance. All will be good in the world (he thinks) so long as our inner John Wayne stays locked up.

How could we have elected (twice) a president with so little faith in America? That question will be keeping historians occupied for the next 100 years. But right now, there's a wolf closer to the sled.

Contrary to the president's assertion, ISIS does indeed pose a "mortal" threat to the United States. That threat is real and it is imminent. It's clear to just about everyone (our president excluded) that ISIS will attack its adversaries outside the Middle East (it's certainly clear to the French and the Russians) — the only question is when and how powerfully.

In assessing the potential severity of such an attack, we should recognize that the difference between 130 dead (Paris), 191 dead (Madrid), more than 200 dead (Bali), nearly 3,000 dead (New York, Washington, and Shanksville on 9/11), and 300,000 dead (the future) is terrorist access to destructive technology.

For the past 300 or 400 years, war has been largely about nation-state conflict (or civil wars and local insurgencies within the geographic boundaries of a nation-state). Over time, international law gradually defined the diplomatic responsibilities and legalities of armed conflict. As a result, policy makers got comfortable with the idea of countries occasionally (and disastrously) going to war. For the most part, it took the resources of a nation-state to really threaten another. Well that day is gone.

Modern weaponry is unbelievably powerful. It's easily transportable. Put the right stuff in a backpack and a half million innocent people may die. A hard truth has emerged in the past quarter century: Terrorists can now act very much like despotic governments — they are the fascists of the 21st century.

I expect that during the next 100 years individual terrorist organizations will come and go, leaving a trail of blood as they are successively defeated. But their defeat will require a sober reassessment of international law and the role of multinational institutions; indeed, it will require a reconsideration of some basic principles of nation-state sovereignty.

In this new threat environment, how can a country effectively protect itself from a confirmed terrorist threat emanating from within the borders of another country? Under such circumstances, is a unilateral military strike morally and legally justified? Can such a strike be preemptive? Is it an act of war against the country in which the strike takes place?

After U.S. special operations forces delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, the Pakistani chief of staff complained bitterly to a senior American official that the Abbottabad raid was a breach of his country's sovereignty. He was told not to take it personally. We'd do it anywhere. And so we must.

The challenge now is to develop a new definition of permissible state action when confronting a very fluid — and powerful — terrorist threat environment. In Lincoln's phrase, it requires us to think anew.

In the remaining year of his presidency, Barack Obama can do much for our country (and much to repair his tattered foreign policy legacy), by letting go of his sympathetic identification with the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Like many of my generation, I opposed — and actively protested — the war in Vietnam. That war was an immense tragedy. We should learn from that painful experience — but overt cowardice in the face of ISIS isn't the lesson to be learned.

The intense criticism of the president ISIS "strategy" from former defense officials has been blunt in content and public in delivery. Their message has a consistent theme. Outdated and misguided presidential rhetoric won't stop the ISIS beheadings, the mass migration of innocent Syrians, or the barbaric intolerance of religious fanatics.

It's time for the United States to lead from the front.

Paul McHale is a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania, a former assistant secretary of defense, and a retired Marine colonel with 33 years active and reserve service.