What exactly does President Obama want to do? What, in fact, do we want him to do? Or perhaps, more importantly what does the United States want to accomplish before we decide what we want to do?
If you don’t have an answer for the last question, coming up with an answer for the first question could you lead you down a path to much bigger problems than the one you are trying to solve right now.
Let me put it another way: going to war requires a great deal more thought and planning before you push the button. That lesson, unhappily, has proven to be one that Americans never seem to learn.
Saying we want to “eradicate” the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever you want to call it) makes for a great sound byte. (The cogent argument made by some that perhaps IS does not represent a serious threat to the United States lies beyond the scope of this article.)
Does that mean we must “eradicate” the 30,000 or so fighters IS seems to have recruited or the several hundred million potential recruits a botched job might generate?
Failing to address the basic problems we helped create ensures we will not defeat the ideology nor ensure stability in a region we seem to agree is important to us. The Middle East must be important to us, otherwise we would have walked away from it like we have walked away from much worse bloodshed in, say, Africa.
All this, by way of saying that Obama taking his time to think carefully before acting, has a lot of merit. Let us begin with the obvious proposition that the leadership of the Islamic State are not idiots.
They would not have accomplished as much as they did if they were. They have defeated a large, American-trained, well-equipped Army in Iraq and fought a battle-tested Russian trained and equipped Army in Syria to a standstill.
They seem to have scared the wits out of Turkey, a large NATO country with a very large and vaunted army. They publicized the graphic slaughter of two innocent Americans precisely to provoke us into sending in American ground troops to energize their recruiting.
The President wants to limit U.S. military intervention to air strikes and small numbers of troops advising the Iraqi Army, and perhaps the Kurdish autonomous forces known as the Pesh Merga.
Obama has shown great reluctance to strike the Islamic State inside Syria for fear that we will be seen as helping the Assad regime buy thus leaving IS untouched in Eastern Syria.
This policy, properly executed would keep American visibility to a minimum, rob IS of a recruiting tool and might get enough Muslim local “boots on the ground” to recover some towns and cities lost to the Islamic State’s surprising advance. It cannot “eradicate” IS.
IS has successfully positioned itself as the Sunni Muslim champions restoring independence and dignity to a region suffering from centuries of oppression imposed by outsiders and Western-backed local dictators.
They have exploited the conviction among many Sunni Muslims that the enemies are Christian Western colonialists (a category that now includes the United States), the Shiite and Alawite heretics, and their own corrupt but often secular dictators. Given that, the only forces actively allied with Christian America against IS are (a) some token Christian Europeans, (b) Shiite Iraqi troops and militias, (c) the corrupt secular Alawite dictator Assad (a “twofer”), and (d) the Kurds who have fought everyone since the days of Xenophon.
To round out the IS picture narrative, they add Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah, Christian Russia, and Shiite Iranian forces supporting both Shiite Iraq and Assad’s Syria. In Sunni eyes, America leads this ungodly coalition.
Unless we can change the lineup, we may win the battles but will surely lose the war. ISIL, al-Qaeda, and who knows what new extremists will still be in action decades from now.
We lack two crucial partners in fighting the Islamic State: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These two states helped create the problem and are essential to the solution.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling family adapted the Wahhabi fundamentalist creed of Islam to gain domestic legitimacy and, backed up by great wealth, exported it to the larger Muslim world. Wahhabism has now become the Saudi Frankenstein’s Monster.
Turkey’s Erdogan used a mix of economic policies along lines dear to the hearts of American conservatives and Islamist politics to create a Turkish economic miracle and destroy the secular State founded by Ataturk.
He then tried to exploit Turkey’s Islamic history to reestablish influence throughout the region, perhaps seeing himself as the reincarnation of both the Sultanate and the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. To his chagrin, IS beat him to the reestablishment of the Caliphate.
These two countries have more than adequate military force to crush the Islamic State with or without American air power. They also have the Islamist credentials that can compete with the siren song of the new Caliphate.
Unfortunately, to do so the Saudi and Turkish leadership must tell their people that they will go to war against a movement with which they share religious teachings and beliefs.
The Saudis have the extra challenge of explaining why they will have ended up fighting on the same side as the Iraqi and Iranian Shiite Demon.
The Turks wish to avoid dealing with Kurdish separatist movements in Syria and Iraq. Both would prefer American soldiers do the job to get them off the hook.
Without Turkey and Saudi Arabia actively in the fight, we can only contain IS and risk strengthening its appeal to the larger Sunni Muslim world.
Obama could scare them into the fight by threatening to ally America with Iran, Russia, and Syria but this won’t fly in Washington. Alternatively, we could simply accept IS as a fact and walk away, leaving the locals to sort things out.