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More than military power is needed to fight ISIS

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
We need to think beyond military conquest to what happens when the guns fall silent.

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/28/2014 - 07:42 am.


    Military power alone is not going to stop ISIS or any other insurgent group for that matter. There are simply too many people to kill. And killing them prompts yet more people to join their cause. Not to mention they’re breeding faster than we can blow them up.

    We need to spend more time and money on hearts and minds projects and less on military. Yes, the use of force still needs to be an arrow in our quiver, but it shouldn’t be the only arrow nor the largest.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 10/28/2014 - 09:09 am.

    Yet other shadows in the mirror…

    and this summing up perspective is an honorable point of view whether it ends with a period or an unassuming question mark?

    …but to take the U.S., the Middle East deeper into the horror story daily evolving; unresolved…check out Oct 24th, “The Roving Eye’ of Pepe Escobar over at Asia times, “The Kobani Riddle” and also the first of comments by another reader from Calcutta, Sankar…Mitra, and it gives a view that adds to the macrame of ideas that never reach a solution but do question the global repercussion of our doing and the vulgar narrative in blood of ISIS/ISIL that goes on terrifying?

    Looking in the mirror: As a naive listener at times I do support a wider perspective in trying discover the how the past has created the present as the future holds so little promise?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/28/2014 - 09:53 am.

    The main lesson of all of our involvements in the past half century is that unless the indigenous population in heavily invested in the outcome that we want, that outcome will not occur–regardless of how much we throw into the bonfires of war to get our way.

    The deep ambivalence of the Middle East to ISIS and other groups we define as Islamic terrorism is the primary hurdle to an effective response to such groups. All the voices we hear decry the actions of those groups–we have no way of hearing the countervailing voices that support the actions and goals of those groups. These groups like ISIS are not aliens descended from Mars imposing their aims on a hapless population. It is a binding of an alternate view of governance and religion that is permissible within the wide bounds of the religion and so remains an acceptable option.

    It is the ambivalence that allows the groups like ISIS, and it is the ambivalence that mutes the response of the people in the region. And until that ambivalence is resolved our involvement is pointless, wasteful and creates more enemies than ever.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/28/2014 - 02:06 pm.

    A suggestion for Mr. Virden and all U.S. foreign policy makers..

    Before writing anything about “What can we do about this ISIS thing ?”, write 50 pieces on why and how our foreign policy CREATED ISIS, and what elements of foreign policy must be changed to not repeat this dynamic again and again.

    As our foreign policy stands basically unchanged in spite of its disastrous outcomes, the roots remain invisible as so few voices expose its underpinnings. Except for a few voices such as the Asia Times Online Ms. John-Knudson mentions above, it seems no one in the United States sees it.

    The U.S. is creating whole generations of implacable foes with its outrageous contempt for the sovereignty of other nations and the rights of “other” peoples.

    Our public policy is that we will cross any nation’s borders at will if we deem it in our interest. We have bombed entire wedding parties and killed dozens in the hope that we can maybe get 1 terrorist, a cousin or brother-in-law of the wedding party, who might be attending. We have set up a system of black ops prisons around the world where we “disappear” people. We have imposed embargos which have cost the lives of many innocent people.

    What organized state has killed more human beings in the last 20 years than the United States ??

    Before we carry on about how evil the other parties are in these conflicts, we might first take a good long, hard look in the mirror.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/28/2014 - 07:40 pm.

    Nice point was made here – “we quickly crushed Saddam Hussein’s army.” If we pulled out right after that, we would have been clear winners but trying to help Iraqis was the main mistake. So let’s try to learn the lessons – America’s involvement must be limited to American interests meaning that trying to make it work in the Middle East is thankless and impossible task.

    No, ISIS’ success was not based on hatred for America or its policies towards Israel but rather on sectarian tensions and Sunni-Shia mutual hatred. And America cannot address those things – they should be left alone to the region. There is no battle for the hearts and minds there – no matter what we do we will be despised for good life, freedom, and wealth. If people there want to fight each other, they should be left alone unless, again, they touch American interests.

    And finally, alluding that America creates all the problems in the world, like some comment writers here did, is pure nonsense. Pepe Escobar is a very anti-American and anti-Western writer to begin with so his writing is hardly an example of an unbiased opinion. But for those who don’t want America to be the country that tries to maintain some order in the world, which country should it be? China? Russia? And if not America, someone will try to fill the void…

  6. Submitted by Faizal bin Ibrahim on 06/06/2015 - 10:10 pm.

    My opinion in solving the issue of ISIS

    All the muslims countries must sit on a table and start discussing the use of military power for a full scale land invasion inside Syria . The goal of the invasion is to topple the Assad’s regime and crush the fighting power of ISIS militia once and for all . After that all the key figures in ISIS must be put to face TRIAL in the Islamic Court by using the Islamic Law . All the Syrian Islamic clerics must be put back to their former position and the Assad regime must face trial for their war crimes . The power must be returned to the Syrian people who will decide their own future .

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