Really. It’s time for America to stop the self-deception in the Middle East. There is one overriding question that needs answering: does the United States genuinely want to succeed in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) or does the preeminent objective remain spinning international events for domestic benefits? If it’s the latter, today’s leading voices will continue thriving. If it’s the former, we’re in real trouble.
In light of the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, President Obama last weekend spoke to the nation and promised to step up actions to defeat ISIS. Reflexively, key Republicans condemned the President’s plan as inadequate and promised a much more powerful response. White House-hopeful Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX) flexed his commander-in-chief credentials by promising to make “ sand glow ” in Iraq and Syria with a massive bombing campaign. Meanwhile in a recent Wall Street Journal article, GOP Senators John McCain (R, AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R, SC) claim ISIS can be defeated “quickly” . All of the options have one thing in common: they are divorced from readily observable reality on the ground in the Middle East.
Senators McCain and Graham propose–curiously–employing the same tactics that have proven ineffective against insurgencies over the past two decades. The President’s plan merely adds increments to the ineffective strategy we’ve employed since August 2014. Senator Cruz has yet to explain how his glowing-sand strategy would deal with the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians living in and around ISIS strongholds that would be in the crosshairs.
All these leaders laudably desire to end the vicious, barbarous threat posed by ISIS. But there is fresh, pervasive and conclusive evidence that all the tactics these leaders advocate have failed brilliantly. The Soufan Group released a report on Monday detailing how the number of foreigners fighting for ISIS have exploded over the past 18 months, more than doubling to approximately 31,000. The terrorist army’s strength has not been dented , despite the massive number of bombs that have been dropped on them over the same timeframe. Numerous foreign policy and military experts warn that an increase in brute force against ISIS may well make the threat still worse.
With so much compelling evidence that relying on brute military force has only made a bad situation worse, it is truly hard to understand how so many otherwise intelligent and experienced leaders could continue arguing for an expansion or continuation of these same failed plans.
Here is the hard, unavoidable truth: because of a decade and a half of failed military strategies, the political fires burning throughout the Middle East renders the situation immune to quick fixes. In appropriate humility, we have to acknowledge that our military policies have not only failed to quell numerous insurgencies but continue to make the flames bigger. The first order of business, therefore, is to stop trying solutions that can only make matters worse, recognize it will take years of hard and unsatisfying work to begin reversing the situation, and perhaps hardest of all for Americans: accept that we’re not going to get everything we want in any eventual resolution.
The initial objective needs to be containing the violence where it is using non-lethal means. Since the application of blunt military force has been in part responsible for the explosion of violence, we need to stop pounding Iraqi and Syrian civilian areas where ISIS operates, as this delays even the possibility of restoring the conditions necessary for economic revival. Next we need to transition considerable focus and resources towards diplomatic and humanitarian efforts aimed at lessoning the suffering of the innocents.
The United States would also substantially elevate the role of diplomacy, working with regional powers to militarily and economically isolate ISIS, work to culturally discredit their vision, and strongly encourage the development of just and effective local governance. We would work with all players who have a stake in the resolution of the fighting, whether allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey–and yes–even states such as Iran and Russia.
So long as our leaders continue to insist on using military power to solve every problem, demanding that all outcomes have to match our preferences, and refusing to work with regional and global powers we might not like, we can count on the ISIS fires to continue burning. If we want to succeed - fostering a Middle East we can live with – then changes must be made and made quickly. We continue clinging to spin at our peril.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after 21 years in the US Army, including four combat deployments. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the US Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.