The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now rules a substantial piece of territory within the borders of those two states, administering its own form of justice, persecuting religious minorities, collecting taxes, and exploiting natural resources. It maintains a capital in Raqqa, in northern Syria. It evidently has forces fighting in Afghanistan (where they have been the subject of a chilling Frontline documentary), in Libya, in the Sinai peninsula, and elsewhere. Although the media still avoids talking about this very much, ISIS descended directly from Al Queda in Iraq, which did not exist until George W. Bush, with very little idea of what he was getting into, decided to invade that country in 2003. It routinely kidnaps, holds for ransom, and beheads foreign nationals. And it has adherents in western nations, including France and the United States, who have committed mass murders on its behalf. With every such attack, the pressure to take drastic action against it grows.
The question of how the United States and the other nations of the world should respond is, in my opinion, a very challenging one to which there is no simple answer. It is easy enough to argue that ISIS represents a great evil and thus must be destroyed. Some are already willing to argue that to destroy its leadership, we should even ignore the human rights of the population of Raqqa and other ISIS strongholds, just as we did the populations of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War. Even President Obama has identified ISIS as a threat to world civilization that must be "degraded and defeated"--but he insists that the United States can play only an auxiliary role in that process, and his own military steps have been relatively cautious. The recapture of Ramadi by Iraqi government-supported forces, assisted by American air power, suggests things are moving in the right direction--but very slowly.
ISIS does undoubtedly represent a threat to civilized values as serious in character--if not in scale--to those posed by Germany and Japan in the Second World War, or by Communism under Stalin and Mao. Two of those four regimes were destroyed by allied coalitions; the other two survived for decades and collapsed, or changed, mostly because of internal pressures. Other at least equally serious threats to western civilization in earlier periods include the Mongol and Ottoman Empires. History does not, in short, support the idea that we must attempt to destroy certain regimes simply because of their evil nature.--or that we can do so. We need a broader kind of test for action.
In my opinion, we need answers to at least two sets of questions. The first is, how much of a threat is ISIS, really, to the centers of western civilization in Europe and the western hemisphere? Is their goal of a universal Caliphate a more serious possibility, for example, than the Communist goal of world revolution? Is the West their real target? And the second, which for me remains critical is this: what would the result of drastic military action be? Would it serve what Clausewitz identified as "the ultimate objective" of war, "which is to bring about peace"? Lacking either the necessary language skills or a detailed knowledge of Islam and the Middle East, I can't provide definitive answers to any of those questions, but I can, I think, provide some alternative possibilities.
To understand the nature of ISIS's threat, we have to put it in the proper context. And the critical issue, to me, is this: is the context a clash of civilizations between radical Islam and the West, or is it the battle within Islam between increasingly radical Sunnis and Shi'ites? I cannot be sure, but for the sake of argument and making us all think, I am going to suggest that the latter interpretation is correct. That would have profound consequences for what kind of action we can expect against ISIS and what would be the consequences.
The current battle between Shi'ites and Sunnis dates at least back to 1979, when radical Shi'ites seized control of the Iranian government. Saddam Hussein unleashed a war against Iran to years later partly to protect his own position as a Sunni dictator in a majority Shi'ite nation. In 1991, George H. W. Bush, James Baker, Colin Powell, and even Dick Cheney realized that overthrowing Saddam would unleash a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war within Iraq, and declined to do so. Twelve years later, George W .Bush made the mistake they had avoided, with disastrous consequences.
As I documented at length here beginning late in 2004, the overthrow of Saddam led almost immediately to the fracturing of Iraq along religious lines, with the majority Shi'ites now in the ascendant. A third player, the Kurds--of whom more later--also took advantage of the situation to establish what amounted to an independent state. In the late 2000s, American strategy temporarily won Sunni tribes in eastern Iraq over to the government side against Al Queda in Iraq, paving the way for the American withdrawal upon which, it is well to remember, the Shi'ite Iraqi government insisted. But as soon as we were gone, Shi'ite repression of the Sunni areas began. Al Queda in Iraq mutated into ISIS, and, with the help of former Ba'athist officers, developed substantial military capabilities.
Meanwhile, the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war had spread to neighboring Syria, where a Sunni majority revolted against the Shi'ite Alawite regime of Hafez Assad. Despite the Bush Administration's experience in Iraq, the Obama Administration pushed the idea that Assad's removal could lead to human rights and democracy in Syria, instead of another bloody religious civil war. ISIS took advantage of that vacuum as well. The regional powers are apparently viewing the situation in Syria, as they did the one in Iraq, entirely through the prism of the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict. Iran still supports Assad, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia still insist that he must go. In the last few years, a third front has opened up in Yemen, where a Shi'ite revolt toppled a Sunni government. Saudi Arabia is waging an air campaign against the Shi'ite rebels, whom Iran supports.
The question that we really must answer is this: does ISIS care more about war with western civilization or war against Shi'ite Islam? Does its incitement, and perhaps planning, of attacks in France and the United States, and its beheadings of western hostages, represent its primary goals, or are these propaganda and recruiting tools designed to seize the mantle of the true representative of Islam against the West? The same questions, actually, arose with equal force with respect to Al Queda, although I don't think most Americans ever realized it. About a decade ago, I asked an officer from a Persian Gulf state at the War College where Osama Bin Laden would want to set off a nuclear weapon, if he could get his hands on one. I was wondering if the answer would be Israel or the United States. Instead, he replied without hesitation, "Saudi Arabia." Bin Laden's struggle, I came to realize, was really a tribal battle within Saudi Arabia. By attacking the United States in 2001, he hoped he could induce us to intervene further in the Middle East and discredit his real enemies, our Arab allies. ISIS, which undoubtedly would love to overthrow the Saudi government as well, may be playing a similar game.
Now the Obama Administration's current strategy against ISIS depends on convincing both Shi'ite and Sunni governments to treat it as the principal threat, more important than the opposing branch of Islam in general. From where I sit, without access to any diplomatic traffic and without language skills, this does not appear to be working. Just as we have to ask whether ISIS's real target is the West or other Muslim governments, we must ask whether those governments regard ISIS as their most important threat. The Saudi government undoubtedly fears ISIS but also knows that ISIS is popular among much of its own population. It is using its air force against Shi'ites in neighboring Yemen, not against ISIS in neighboring Iraq. Observers of the Saudi Kingdom have also suggested that the government executed a leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, partly because it was executing several dozen Sunni extremists at the same time and wanted to shift the focus of the majority population to the supposed internal Shi'ite danger. The Iranian response has brought an all-out religious war that much closer to the region. Turkey, meanwhile, seems much more concerned with both removing Assad in Syria and crushing the resistance of its own Kurdish minority than it does about ISIS. The Egyptian government is fighting ISIS, but within Egypt.
What the peoples of the Middle East desperately need is an easing of Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that will allow them to live in peace. Unfortunately, there is really no sign of any movement in that direction, with the possible exception of the international peace initiative for Syria, whose prospects are extremely uncertain. And that, it seems to me, is something we must consider before taking drastic military action against ISIS. There is no immediate prospect of any rearrangement of the borders and internal politics of the Middle Eastern nations that would reflect American values, because none of the major combatants in the struggle are fighting for American values. Were the military capabilities of ISIS destroyed, others would try to fill the resulting vacuum, and the result would not be peace. It might not even be better than ISIS.
Some believe that the destruction of Raqqa would send an unmistakable message to the Muslims of the world that their direct challenge to western civilization cannot work. But such a response--unlike our current use of specifically targeted air and drone strikes--would be vastly disproportionate, and I do not see how it could reduce hatred of the West among the Islamic world. And if we are going to face a real long-term clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, it seems to me that it will have to be similar to the one that occurred between the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and sometime early in the 18th century when the Ottoman Empire definitely fell behind the West and ceased to be a major threat.
Because of ISIS, the rise of militant Islam, and the immigration of millions of Muslims into Europe and the United States, the West faces a continuing domestic terrorist threat. There will be more attacks like those in Paris and San Bernardino in years to come, although I would not venture to guess how many more. Governments will have to find ways to act against aliens or citizens who have become acolytes of ISIS or other militant groups, but nothing will be foolproof. That, I would argue, is the price of living in a huge, densely populated, interconnected world with an internet and largely open borders. Leveling Raqqa, in my opinion, would not solve that problem. The real challenge for the governments of the West is in many ways an intellectual one: to accept that their values have not, and will not, prevail in large parts of the world for some time to come. Yet the West has survived and thrived under such conditions for many centuries in the past, and can do so in the future. That, at any rate, is my opinion.