The ISIS Challenge: A Tough Problem, Even Tougher Solutions

The Islamic State presents the Middle East and America with an immense challenge. The possible solutions won't be easy to implement.

The use of U.S. military force against ISIS is a significant escalation whose long-term significance is elusive. The announced justification for the military strikes combined a humanitarian rationale (the exigent need of the Yazidis stranded on their bleak mountain) with the threat that ISIS posed to American citizens in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. These objectives cannot quite be taken at face value. Humanitarian interventions have a strong tendency to morph into something much larger; there is, moreover, a deep obscurity in what the Obama administration intends to do. President Obama has identified a vital interest, but has also put some limits on the enterprise. He emphasized that “there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government—one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and one that can unify the country’s fight against ISIL.”

The American airstrikes occur against the background of a prolonged stalemate over the formation of a new Iraqi government. Nouri al-Maliki, who has recently announced that he will step aside, whose parliamentary list received the most seats in the elections, has incurred the bitter enmity of the Kurds and the Sunnis; even a majority of the Shia legislators has abandoned him. Iran opposes him; the United States opposes him; Sistani opposes him. Faced with these obstacles, it seems incredible that Maliki should have stationed personally-loyal military forces at critical points around the capital in a display of force, as his answer to the call of the Iraqi president—a Kurd—to nominate Haider al-Abadi for prime minister in preference to Maliki. (Maliki is also objecting to the very presidential discretion that enabled him to remain prime minister in 2010, when Allawi earned, but was denied, the right to form a government.) It is a very ill omen that the Shia should display such division even when their community lies under mortal peril.

It is by no means a given that al-Abadi will be able to form a government. The obstacles that confronted Maliki will also confront him. The Kurds remain set on a referendum for independence, presumably indicating that their participation in the government would be of limited duration; there is a deep sense of mutual betrayal between Baghdad and Erbil. The Sunnis also make demands—the control of the defense ministry and the release of prisoners, especially—that seem unlikely to be accepted at a time of supreme emergency for Iraqi Shia. It is not clear how much political and military heft the Sunni parliamentarians hold in their own territories—probably not much—so their signatures would not move mountains of men. Even if the obstacles are overcome and a governing majority is patched together, it is absurd to think that government reform would also mean military reform (the multiethnic, depoliticized force that Kenneth Pollack continues to push, against all evidence of its feasibility). What the United States was unable to achieve after many years of trying cannot be put together on the fly, if at all. The Iraqi army has become the army for Shiastan and is operating in conjunction with Shia militias. How can it be otherwise?

All this suggests that Obama has set an unattainable condition for the (unspecified) help the United States would give if the Iraqis suddenly got an “inclusive” government. It is unclear whether Obama set that condition because he knew that it could not be attained, or because he wants to make a big effort, even if the condition is not fully met. In any case, American rhetoric is very far detached from the realities of Iraq, now effectively partitioned into three quasistates whose chief purpose is the wars they prosecute with one another.

There is no question that ISIS represents a malignant force. The Islamic State is a new order of barbarity in the world—it puts in the shade nearly all the “terrorists” in the Middle East as customarily denominated by Washington and Tel Aviv. Terrorism is a term widely abused—it often seems to refer simply to armed men whose causes we don’t approve of—but ISIS is certifiably the real deal, the guys who made bin Laden cringe. Just when “terrorism” had become virtually useless as a political category, made unintelligible by constant overuse, ISIS stepped into the breach to remind us that there is such a thing as the hostis humani generis. As such, the rise of ISIS reveals the need for a thorough upheaval in U.S. foreign policy. Insofar as we have any role to play in helping to bring some semblance of order to a desperate region, it must consist primarily in the containment of this new malignant force. Until the progress of the Islamic State is arrested and reversed, everything else in regional policy should be subordinate to this imperative.

To call for such a reevaluation in policy does not mean that the United States should make it its business to destroy ISIS; it is the business of the states of the region to undertake this objective, with our cooperation and support. The obvious need is for a grand coalition of regional and global powers looking towards the containment, at a minimum, of the Islamic State.