THE CHALLENGE OF ISIS AND BEYOND – GETTING IT RIGHT

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey briefing reporters at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey briefing reporters at the Pentagon.

By Harry C. Blaney III

There are few things more challenging today, not only for the West but also for the Islamic world, than confronting ISIS and stopping its carnage and above all seeking the rise of a more unified moderate Islamic consensus. After all, ISIS is an even greater threat to the Islamic world than it is for America and Europe.

On August 25th the New York Times wrote an editorial titled “A Necessary Response to ISIS.” This had about as good a short appraisal of the situation, and of a strategy for dealing with it, as can be found in an American journal. Frankly, it is also what seems to have been and still is the approach of the Obama administration to address the many complex levels of the current conflict. Its perspective is to seek a long-term solution or at least to lessen ISIS’s threat to the Islamic world and perhaps the West.

Noting the recent statements of Defense Secretary Hagel, and especially the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, that ISIS poses an “immediate threat” and is “beyond anything we have seen,” highlights a new sense of urgency in addressing the dangerous rise of ISIS and its control over a wide area of the Middle East. Both Hagel and Dempsey were, and I think still are, skeptical of the overreaching of military actions to solve major upheavals. While these remarks may be a bit exaggerated, they do express a new assessment of the growing power and brutality of ISIS. 

Obama’s own views and approach are perhaps better stated, in short form, when he said that “from governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” My conclusion is similar. We need a political/diplomatic set of tools and efforts, as well as a discreet military effort that will blunt the advance and power of ISIS militants, who have done what no terrorist group has managed to do, and we need to apply a full set of tools to contain and overcome its advances. Obama has long recognized that American power has limits and even some disadvantages when acting alone. There is no substitute for a unified Iraqi government and a well disciplined and motivated army.  But the problem now goes beyond Iraq and reaches into the whole Middle East and beyond.

The New York Times Editorial Board set forth the following ideas for dealing with this threat:

 

“The politics of Iraq, however, remain dangerously unsettled. The United States successfully pressed for a change from Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister in Iraq because only a more inclusive leader would have any chance of unifying the country against the ISIS threat. And, in a rare convergence of interests, Iran also withdrew its support from Mr. Maliki, resulting in the appointment of a new leader, Haider al-Abadi. But Parliament has yet to give final approval to the new government, thus prolonging political uncertainties that undermine the fight against ISIS.

The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is. But, like Iraq, they are mired in petty competitions and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions and many have their own relations with extremists of one kind or another. ISIS has received financing from donors in Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to Syrian rebels and didn’t care if they went to ISIS. Turkey allowed ISIS fighters and weapons to flow across porous borders. All of that has to stop.

Creating a regional military force may be required, including assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Turkey. It certainly will require money, intelligence-sharing, diplomatic cooperation and a determined plan to cut off financing to ISIS and the flow of ISIS fighters between states. France’s suggestion for an international conference deserves consideration.

No matter how many American airstrikes are carried out — Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria — such extremists will never be defeated if Muslims themselves don’t make it a priority. To their credit, some leaders are speaking out. Among them is Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti who called ISIS and Al Qaeda the “enemy No. 1 of Islam.”

But they must go further and begin a serious discussion about the dangers of radical Islam and how ISIS’s perversion of one of the world’s great religions can be reversed.

 

Beyond these ideas, it is clear that the Europeans have a real stake in this effort. They were the ones who almost a century ago created the irrational borders, failed to nourish democratic ideas, exploited the region’s resources, and gave little back. But our own actions in Iraq were contributory elements to the ongoing conflict with the chaos caused by the Bush II administration’s unneeded intervention and unforgivable bungling of our occupation. Even today there is high uncertainty that a unifying government can, in the end, be put together or can create a strong and effective response to ISIS advances. But at least via Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts, and those of others, there is a fragile process that has a chance of succeeding.

We are faced today with a number of wide ranging and major crises which challenge, indeed even frustrate the capability, intelligence, and morality of the international community. Here at home the favorite game of the right, and even by some on the left, is to blame President Obama for conditions that were set in motion by the previous administration or had already existed for generations.  Some push for a vaguely thought-out, massive “military operation.” “War” is their favored option, but they themselves are unwilling to send troops into the field. Neither do they usefully appropriate funding for humanitarian assistance or address the fundamental conditions that breed terrorism. They deny the resources and flexibility needed by diplomacy to act to bring people and countries together in order to fight the extreme brutality of ISIS and other actors who employ terror. They also dismiss and underfund programs that help establish responsible and competent governance which is the best antidote to unrest, growing inequality, and the disintegration of society.

This is the character of our world today: ISIS’s rise, the Syrian Civil War and the other Middle East conflicts, and the continued presence of conflict and political strife in Afghanistan.  Add to this the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere, China’s military assertiveness, climate change, and the recent Ebola outbreak which is just one aspect of a larger global health crisis. And not least we see the growing global inequality that underlies so much of America and our world’s woes.  But the key is to act preventively and address problems before they become kinetic, unmanageable, and costly to human life. Our international institutions need reform and must be strengthened in order to act on behalf of the global community so that they may more effectively address global challenges.

The key now is getting our efforts in the region to have the right balance. But as Obama has said time and time again, it must be with others, not alone. Policy must also be smart and long-term, and as he also said, “don’t do stupid stuff.” America and the international community must learn how to effectively deal with multiple fast moving crises. Looking at ourselves, we are not in America sadly, reasoning together to seek good solutions and help the president apply necessary tools and resources.

We welcome your comments!

3 thoughts on “THE CHALLENGE OF ISIS AND BEYOND – GETTING IT RIGHT

  1. Harry C. Blaney III September 1, 2014 / 8:08 PM

    In response to Chuck Woolery’s key comment about preemptive verses preventive action, my view is there are times when both strategic tools must be used. it depends on the context, if you know a attack is going to take place it is rational at times to act preemptively — I can think of a number of times in the WW II era — while the preventive tool is much more effective if one has the time and resources and the political will to provide the necessary actions to stop killing, help endangered peoples, and prevent the start of war.

    We are facing a moment in the Ukraine and in the Middle East when both tools might be used but without a broad participation of other nations the chance of success with either options is much less.

    • chuck woolery September 2, 2014 / 12:51 AM

      Harry, During World War II there doesn’t need to be a clear distinction between Preemptive and preventive. We were already at war against and somewhat predictable and identifiable enemy. In our ‘war’ against terrorism (an ideology that anyone can have) everyone is a suspect. When we attack a suspected terrorist or group of terrorists the chance for collateral damage is considerable. Given that such attacks are likely to create more terrorists than we kill…preemption is predictably NOT preventive. In the context of public health (and real peace) preventive action addresses the underlying symptoms…or the exact cause of the disease/infection…that heals the condition instead of making it worse. Yes. A surgery may remove a deadly tumor…but eliminating the cause of the tumor would contribute more to the long term health of the patient. Preemptive surgery or treatment has a dizzying array of unintended consequences. War…no different.
      SEE: Universal Declaration of Human Rights for proven preventive actions.

  2. chuck woolery August 27, 2014 / 12:30 AM

    Harry, Your second to the last paragraph reads “This is the character of our world today: ISIS’s rise, the Syrian Civil War and the other Middle East conflicts, and the continued presence of conflict and political strife in Afghanistan. Add to this the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere, China’s military assertiveness, climate change, and the recent Ebola outbreak which is just one aspect of a larger global health crisis. And not least we see the growing global inequality that underlies so much of America and our world’s woes. But the key is to act preventively and address problems before they become kinetic, unmanageable, and costly to human life. Our international institutions need reform and must be strengthened in order to act on behalf of the global community so that they may more effectively address global challenges.”

    Right on! And the predominant thread exacerbating this inherently faulty ‘character’ is the primacy of national sovereignty in seeking resolutions/solutions. You allude to such in stating “Our international institutions need reform” and the apparent unwillingness of existing sovereign states to “act preventively”. To change this flawed ‘character’ we must change the system. Given the inherent short term self interest that each nation has in retaining the increasingly troubled system…I’m guessing it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. With or without ISIS our future is going to get increasingly chaotic and lethal.

    Key point: Preemptive action is not preventive action. It looks like those in power still haven’t learned the difference.

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