A Policy Prescription For Dealing With The Islamic State

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt outlines a somewhat controversial policy of strategic disengagement from the Middle East, arguing that every time we meddle in the region, we tend to make it worse.  For the most part, I happen to agree.  I’ve often summed up our predicament there and potential course of action as “damned if we do, damned if we don’t, so we might as well not, because that costs America the least.”  This also seemed like a good time to follow up on my June piece on the situation in “Syraq” in light of developments over the past couple of months.

As the President works on his golf game, the permanent speculation machine here in Washington has been in overdrive, with flapping heads of all flavors outlining how awful ISIS is and just how many bombs we should be dropping.  Should we use airstrikes on IS targets encroaching into Kurdish territory or just airstrikes to prevent genocide?  Are airstrikes in Syria ok now because there’s really no border with Iraq anymore?  Do the hundreds of Americans sent back to Iraq in recent weeks really count against our “no boots on the ground” policy and are we at risk of mission creep?

On top of this, the White House has labeled the murder of reporter James Foley “terrorism,” which I’m worried sets a dangerous precedent.  If every heinous act on Earth has the potential to be codified as such, that wide berth allows the US to justify military intervention pretty much anywhere.  How can his brutal murder be quickly and definitively classified as terrorism, but the murder of an American ambassador and assault on the consulate in Benghazi Libya remain ambiguous for so long?  We’ve heard this song before and it’s time to shoot these trial balloons down once and for all.

A recent statement by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Dempsey made mention that he believed it was possible to contain ISIS, although not in perpetuity.  I believe a strategy of containment may be the answer.  I can hear the neo-conservatives howling now, claiming such a policy is foolhardy, naive, unworkable, cowardly, etc.  But mostly they won’t like it because it will result in fewer of those neat black and white videos of trucks getting hit by missiles that we like to watch so much.

I reread George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” which outlined the strategy of containment of communism that was USG policy for over 40 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and noticed some parallels to the waging of jihad and the formation of this Islamic State.  Kennan states:

“As long as remnants of capitalism were officially recognized as existing in Russia, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the maintenance of a dictatorial form of society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the Soviet regime: since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority (or be an effective scapegoat for the failures of communism), it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.”

In short, the reasoning the communist leaders used to explain why communism wasn’t working was because there were still internal pockets of capitalism preventing the communist utopia from emerging.  Once those internal pockets were gone, capitalism abroad became the bogeyman on which to blame the failures of collectivist policies.  Kennan states further that Russia was “an impotent nation capable of exporting its enthusiasms and of radiating the strange charm of its primitive political vitality, but unable to back up those articles of export by the real evidences of material power and prosperity.”

Bottom line, Kennan (along with Soviet leaders) realized that the theory of communism was more attractive than the practice, so in order to survive, communism had to continuously expand.  By hindering that expansion through containment, the Soviets were forced to implement the policies they espoused, the result proved unworkable, and the USSR ultimately collapsed.  Kennan noted that “Soviet power bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”

I would posit that the same applies to this purported caliphate and the Islamic utopia it promises.  The idea of revolutionary jihad is appealing to young angst-riddled men with no prospects and no future in either their traditional Muslim homelands or as transplants in the Western world.  Islam was born out the miserable existence that most people in 7th century Arabia had to endure and its message was a welcome respite from the cruelty and injustice that was rampant during that time.

But much like communism, an Islamic state is wholly unworkable in practice mainly because no agreement exists on which form of Islam is the “right” one.  To use a Western aphorism, campaigning (as in waging a military campaign) is very different from governing.  The idea of expanding this caliphate through the glory of jihad is much more appealing to a young militant than say, the proper administration of services under a functioning civil society.  I doubt many of the militants that have traveled to Syria or Iraq have any idea how to ensure drinking water stays clean and flowing or how to make sure garbage doesn’t pile up on the streets.  In fact, we know conclusively that they would fail terribly at these basic tasks.

Look no further than the Anbar Awakening in 2006-7 when the Sunni population rose up against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in response to increasingly brutal tactics by the extremists.  General Petraeus’ surge, while helpful in the stabilization effort, was not nearly as important as the Sunni tribes coming together to reclaim their own future.  More recently, observe the cornucopia of incompetence that was the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood’s short reign in Egypt.  It seems the best argument against governance by militant Islamists is letting them try it for a while to show their prospective constituency (and the rest of the world) just how inept they are at it.

We’ve already seen signs of these militants alienating the local population, declaring cigarettes “haram,” or forbidden, and burning them all in the town square.  Anyone who’s been to the region immediately recognizes the prevalence of smoking and it’s place in the daily life of many Arabs.  Granted, this is one anecdote, but a telling one that suggests giving ISIS enough rope to hang themselves with may just be the best option in this scenario.  The solution to this mess ultimately lies with the Syrians and the Iraqis and the rest of the Arabs, not us.  To quote Lawrence of Arabia, “Better to let them do it imperfectly than do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their war, and your time is short.”


From a geostrategic perspective, the West could declare that if ISIS wants its own state or caliphate, it’s territorial limitations are these.  First, have Turkey (a NATO member) reinforce the Kurdistan Regional Government and secure its traditional borders with the rest of Iraq.  Erdogan has plenty of political capital after his recent election to the presidency, he could use this opportunity to address the Kurdish question once and for all.  This would obviously be the first step in getting to an independent Kurdistan, which current USG policy does not support.

Second, delist the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization.  Its enmity with Turkey that got it on that list in the first place has subsided greatly.  Delisting them would allow the West to have fighters it could support in place to hold the line against any IS encroachments after Turkey withdraws.  The alternative to this approach is unfolding now, with US forces again doing all the heavy lifting and drawing the ire of the radical Islamists.  Should attacks by IS forces occur on the Turks while they are supporting the Kurds, Turkey could invoke article 5 of the NATO charter stating that an attack on one is an attack on all.

To the southwest, do not encroach on Jordan.  Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, is designated a Major Non-Nato Ally, and has provided invaluable support to the US and her interests for many years now.  While far from perfect, the Hashemite Kingdom has met its numerous regional challenges with grit and determination and truly values its burgeoning relationship with the West.  If US interests are threatened there, it will respond to defend them.

As for Saudi Arabia to the south, they have the capability to defend themselves and now is their chance to practice.  The Kingdom, by virtue of government policy and/or turning a blind eye to the actions of its citizens, has had a hand in funding the teaching of fundamentalist Wahhabism and supporting these jihadists in Syria, so it seems only fair that it deals with the consequences of those actions now that they have come to their doorstep.

That leaves all of Syria and Iraq minus Kurdistan as a potential Islamic State.  By allowing that pot to keep simmering, Assad (and by virtue of association, Iran and Russia) must continue to bleed resources.  If they have to spend their blood and treasure to assist him in maintaining power in Syria, it is an outcome that few US strategists will lament.  In Iraq, as the Sunni horde marches on the Shi’a south, Iran will have to intervene (it already has advisors in Baghdad) to prevent annihilation of their coreligionists on its western flank, another resource drain they can ill afford.  Additionally, if the government in Baghdad can’t control the territory of Iraq, one must wonder why they are in charge in the first place.

It is also convenient to have all these jihadists pouring into one location.  America is proficient at state-on-state warfare, where as counterinsurgency is not her strong suit.  In Afghanistan, it took 3 weeks to oust the Taliban decisively and convincingly, but the Afghans were flummoxed as to why we were still mired down after a decade.  The answer is because when we fight our way, concentrated force on concentrated force, we win.  When we face an insurgency, our tools are no longer as useful.

It might be to our military and strategic benefit to have these jihadists congeal into a state, complete with logistics chains, training centers, command posts, communications nodes, distribution centers, administrative hubs, and other conveniently concentrated military targets to make it easier (not to mention more cost effective) to stomp them into oblivion should they pose a real and serious threat to the US homeland.

Perhaps America need not be the tip of the spear this go around.  Perhaps we approach this as the conductor of an orchestra—directing the music, but not stepping into the pit with the band.  At the end of the day, you can’t defeat an ideology with a bomb, you have to defeat it by either pointing out the fallibility of that ideology and/or offering a better alternative.