Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert are accidentally having a serious debate on ISIS

Kudos to the Fox News pundit and his Comedy Central funhouse doppelgänger for inadvertently performing a public service

Colber vs. O'Reilly
(Image credit: Comedy Central/Fox News)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a problem without a great solution. President Obama's plan is to pair U.S. and coalition airstrikes with boots on the ground — from some other, preferably Muslim-majority country, plus U.S.-trained Syrian rebels of unknown effectiveness and loyalty — to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. It's certainly not a foolproof plan, and most Americans are skeptical that the U.S. will be able to keep U.S. ground forces out of the conflict.

Obama's Republican critics have generally played the "it's not enough" card without the follow-up "here's a better idea" one. But Fox News star Bill O'Reilly has a plan: Create an army of 25,000 mercenaries to fight ISIS and other terrorists for America, anywhere in the world. The English-speaking army-for-hire would be trained by U.S. and NATO troops, paid well by client states, and told to follow the Geneva Conventions. It's an interesting idea, deserving of some debate, but it has its critics.

One of them is Stephen Colbert, who issued this counter-argument last week:

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You know these mercenaries will be good guys, because only the best people kill whoever you want for cash. It's quality folks, is what I'm saying — unlike those suckers who do it for the love of country.... As long as we're pretending there's a way to fight a war that doesn't involve sacrifice and that the American people and politicians don't have to feel any responsibility for, we need to think bigger — like maybe my invisible bomb that blows up only bad guys. [The Colbert Report]

O'Reilly hit back on Monday night, in the guise of offering tips on "how to deal with dumb people":

Here's the tip: Mr. Colbert and others of his ilk have no bleeping clue how to fight the jihad. They don't know anything. And when someone gets beheaded their reaction is "Oh, that's bad." But by being completely vacant, it doesn't stop these people from mocking ideas that might have some value, might solve some complex problems. Because in the world of the ideologue, where Colbert lives, solutions don't really matter. [The O'Reilly Factor]

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This exchange is heavily infused with mockery on both sides, of course. And O'Reilly's idea really isn't that great — read some of Charles Krauthammer's to-O'Reilly's-face critiques — but it also isn't too outlandish.

Mostly, though, it's something new in a conversation that feels pretty stale. Credit to O'Reilly for airing a new sort of plan, even if it opened him up to ridicule, and kudos to Colbert for engaging in the debate. Asymmetric warfare like terrorism requires new ideas, and even if this one wasn't the greatest, hashing it out in public may spark an actually viable proposal to counter the threat of U.S.-focused Islamist jihad.

If not, at least it makes for compelling TV.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.