President John Quincy Adams once said that America did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But we have, often, and we regularly find new dragons we judge need slaying. The latest of these is ISIS, Islamic State, or whatever we choose to call the militant fanatics who now dominate much of Iraq and Syria.
There is nothing ambivalent about a group that beheads innocent civilians, ignores established borders, and wants to return to the dark ages when there is no separation of church and state and women are chattel to be kept out of sight. Yet recognizing ISIS as evil incarnate tells us little about how to combat it.
The rise of ISIS has presented Americans with a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. We badly want to concentrate on our many problems at home but cannot ignore an in-your-face menace that is manifestly hostile to us and everything we stand for. We are torn between isolationism and a belief that as the indispensable nation we have a special role to play in the world. We are a reluctant sheriff, to borrow a phrase coined two decades ago by Richard Haass, yet we have accustomed the world to expect America to take on every new security crisis.
Does that mean yet another American war in a part of the world where we’ve been engaged in violent conflict seemingly forever and with little apparent success? Is countering this threat primarily an American responsibility or should others be equally concerned and committed?
If there is an Obama Doctrine, it is that we should not take on policing the world by ourselves and that America’s value added should take forms other than boots on the ground. The president has applied these principles in assembling a coalition of some 40 nations to do battle against the ISIL forces in the field in Iraq and Syria.
The vital ‘And then what?’ question
It might work. We and our allies may well be able to crush this foe with military might, as President Obama has vowed we will. The military mission, “to degrade and ultimately to destroy ISIS,” will be no walk in the park. It is not going well thus far, but let’s stipulate that we can and will defeat ISIS militarily. And then what? That is the vital question that was not asked or addressed when we went to war against Iraq in 2003.
We quickly crushed Saddam Hussein’s army, but the chaos, confusion and conflict that followed cost us dearly in blood and treasure. We have precious little to show for the lives lost and trillions of dollars spent.
If we want to avoid a similar result with ISIS, we need to think beyond military conquest to what happens when the guns fall silent. Even after military victory, the problems that led to the creation of ISIS will remain. Unless we address them with a truly comprehensive and sustainable strategy, ISIS, al-Qaida or something similar will likely rise again in that part of the world.
Disaffection, resentment …
There’s been little public analysis of how and why ISIS grew so strong so fast, but clearly frustration and disaffection among Muslim youth is one factor. Resentment of American military presence in their lands is another. Bitterness toward U.S. backing of Israel is a third. We may scoff at the legitimacy of these grievances, but they are widely and deeply felt. And since there are some 1.5 billion Muslims, and they are a majority in 49 countries, we can ill afford to simply dismiss them.
A comprehensive strategy for confronting ISIS-type militants would recognize that we’re engaged in an ideological contest, a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslim masses. To win such a war we need to use all the tools of statecraft, not only military power. That would include energetic diplomacy to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and to enlist Muslim leaders in combatting what is a perverted version of a great religion.
A need for sustained aid
Generous and sustained economic and humanitarian assistance in caring for refugees and rebuilding societies must also be an element of American policy. Losing interest, as we did after helping the Mujahidin drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the ’80s, would be another fateful mistake. Congress must rise above partisan bickering and catering to special interests (the military-industrial-congressional complex) to supply the resources needed for these efforts.
We will also need to employ vigorous public diplomacy to offer a positive vision for the future and contrast it with the bleak negativity ISIS represents. Arab leaders, both civilian and religious, should be encouraged to join in this cause.
All this will take time. But then, we’ve spent more than a decade trying to impose a military solution to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. A comprehensive strategy for winning the hearts and minds of Muslims will not succeed quickly either, but it offers more hope for a lasting peace.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.
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