What to do about the Islamic State

President Obama yesterday pledged, in addition to military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq:

…we will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region and beyond.

What does turning the tide mean? Does it mean defeating ISIL? Does it mean helping the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga to retake territory from ISIL? Or does it mean only disrupting ISIL’s efforts to govern the territory it controls? What lies behind these few, vague but suggestive words?

A lot turns on the answer. It wouldn’t be the first time this president, and his predecessors, promised a long-term strategy and never delivered a clear set of goals with the ways and means to achieve them. Even more than some of his predecessors, President Obama seems inclined to manage problems rather than solve them, especially when doing so would conflict with the overall goal of removing U.S. troops from war zones. That is something he and the American people want.

But the statement yesterday could also represent a change in President Obama’s attitude towards towards the ISIL threat, which he has wanted to ignore when it was limited to Syria and even when it first entered Iraq. That would be a mistake. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both hoped to ignore or at most disrupt and deter the Al Qaeda threat and lived to regret it. ISIL has picked up the Al Qaeda standard from its defeats in Afghanistan and Yemen and carried it from Syria into Iraq, daring along the way to declare a caliphate that the remnants of Al Qaeda say is premature.

For the moment, ISIL does not appear to threaten the United States directly. It prioritizes establishing the caliphate and has its hands full with that. In Syria, it is advancing on Aleppo from the north even as the regime is making progress in encircling the city center. In Iraq, it yesterday lost control of the Mosul Dam to Iraqi and Kurdistan government forces taking advantage of American air strikes, though it still controls more or less one-third of the country. If it remains in that posture, it won’t be long before ISIL takes a crack at the US, either by attacking forces deployed in Iraq or by striking–perhaps using proxies–American civilians.* The US is far from impregnable, as 9/11 and subsequent attempts have demonstrated, and American citizens are vulnerable throughout the Middle East.

We have no reason not to take the ISIL threat seriously. Brian Fishman prefers to contain it for now, while building up governance capabilities in Iraq and Syria that could eventually take on the job of defeating it. That requires a lot of wishful thinking, since the many years of American efforts to build up governance in Iraq have come to nought. Others want the President to commit to defeating ISIL militarily. Bing West suggests what that would take. The quality and quantity of the commitment he thinks necessary are nowhere to be seen right now.

Sunni attitudes towards ISIL and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are one critical factor determining how long ISIL thrives. Hussein Ibish reports unwillingness among Sunnis to acknowledge that ISIL is real and has strong roots in Sunni communities. Many prefer to imagine that ISIL is a Western or Israeli construct (even that Baghdadi is a Jewish actor), which means they don’t like it but also don’t own it. He writes:

So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.

And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

Nor should American allow themselves to be deluded. Baghdadi is real and ISIL is a threat. We need to decide what to do about it.

*That didn’t take long:  ISIL apparently executed today (8/19) an American journalist it took captive in Syria two years ago.

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