Go back to the weeks and months immediately following the Al Qaeda attack on the American homeland on September 11, 2001. Suppose that Al Qaeda had somehow managed to become a major military power in the Middle East. Suppose further that Al Qaeda had established a significant presence in Syria and conquered strategic territories in Iraq, threatening to obliterate peoples and religious sensibilities it despised. Now suppose it had set up what it called a “caliphate” to rule over that territory, demanded fealty from all Muslims everywhere and established itself as an enemy of America.
Question: Would the United States have intervened militarily to thwart this destabilizing force in the crucial Middle East and, if possible, to destroy it?
The answer is yes.
A second question: Should the United States have intervened in such a cause?
The answer is yes again.
That is precisely what now has happened in the Middle East—with two differences. First, it isn’t Al Qaeda that has forged itself into a military force that threatens to destabilize the Middle East and turn it into a hotbed of anti-Western fervor. It is, rather, an Al Qaeda offshoot, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a far more dangerous threat. And second, the United States, far from the coiled and angry nation that emerged after 9/11, is enervated, tired of war and tired of the Middle East.
Thus do we see a dichotomy that has President Obama in its grip. On one hand, he knows that the most powerful nation on earth has an obligation to maintain stability in crucial strategic regions of the world and also to protect its own people from real and potential threats of serious magnitude. That’s why he has commenced his aerial warfare against ISIS positions in Iraq, where the Al Qaeda offshoot threatens to wipe out Kurdistan in the north and take Baghdad in the country’s crucial central region. The whole of Iraq could soon come under the control of this Islamist force.
But, on the other hand, he knows his countrymen are extremely skittish about another Middle Eastern war that unleashes seething anti-Western passions and saps American blood and treasure. That’s why he has pursued his usual approach of half-measures that make him look decisive, but have little prospect of actually changing significantly the situation on the ground, notwithstanding the initial ISIS retreat from captured territory in response to the first three days of aerial strikes.
The president knows he must do something, so he does something; but he doesn’t want to do anything, so he does as little as possible.
But Obama and the country need to make some distinctions. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was not a threat to America before he was overthrown through U.S. force of arms and his country destroyed. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was not a threat to America before he was upended with U.S. help and his country also destroyed. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was not a threat, and neither was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but both came under withering U.S. condemnation when weakened by internal dissent and civil war.
But ISIS represents an ominous threat to U.S. security if it is allowed to establish itself permanently as a state or quasistate in the heart of the Middle East. It’s easy to bemoan the tragic American foreign-policy folly of the past eleven years that has destabilized this crucial region and paved the way for this horrendous turn of events. But that doesn’t obviate the reality that those events now pose a serious threat to regional stability and the safety of the West and America.
The seriousness of the threat calls for a cohesive and comprehensive U.S. foreign policy that takes into account the sacrifice that likely will be needed to address this crisis. A number of steps, all interrelated, should be pursued.
First, the president needs to level with the American people in a way that he has thus far avoided. He must identify Islamist radicalism as the country’s primary enemy and explain why and how its rise in the Middle East would pose a serious threat to the American homeland far beyond any threat ever posed by Al Qaeda. He should say that America must shoulder the burden of maintaining global stability and that it must act always in its own national interest, which begins with the protection of American sovereignty and American lives. He should abandon the nostrums of Wilsonism and concentrate on the United States’ national interest. This isn’t about democracy or pluralism or any kind of springtime in Arabia. It is about power and the need for America to use its power to prevent Islamist radicalism from establishing a military and geopolitical presence in the Middle East.
Second, he should clear the decks diplomatically, extricating the country from foreign controversies that lack strategic significance and serve to divert attention and resources from the immediate ISIS threat. This means negotiating an end to the unfortunate confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. It is a distraction that never made sense, but now carries too high a price. Ukraine has no strategic significance to the United States and little to Europe. It has been part of Russia’s sphere of influence for 350 years. The outlines of an agreement are clear: America and the West will cease efforts to pull Ukraine into Europe and forswear any interest in getting Ukraine into NATO. Russia will accept a Western-oriented government in Kiev, so long as eastern Ukraine is granted a significant degree of cultural and governmental autonomy. Sanctions will be removed. And the two countries will explore mutual interests, including their interest in preventing a serious rise of Islamist fundamentalism. It’s difficult to see how any of this would clash with vital U.S. strategic interests.
Third, the United States should pursue a diplomatic approach in the Middle East that focuses on the ISIS threat above all other considerations. That means getting tough with states—Saudi Arabia, for example, and other Sunni Gulf nations—that harbor radical elements and seem bent on exploiting the ISIS rise to thwart their Shia enemies in Iraq and Iran. It means working with countries that share U.S. concerns, including nations that have been considered adversaries in the past—Iran, for example, and Assad’s Syria. The country should also make clear that it doesn’t care about what kinds of governments are pursued in the countries of the Middle East or the cultural habits and sensibilities of the people there. Its only concern is the rise of Islamist radicalism.
Fourth, the United States should seek to become once again a leader of the West and operate as the core state of its civilization. Most European nations broke off from the U.S. rush to the Iraq war because they saw no merit in this Wilsonian meddling and viewed it as a destabilizing policy. They were right. But this is different, and it requires true national leadership of a Churchillian nature. All of Western civilization has a stake in the outcome of this confrontation.
Finally, once the decks have been cleared and a policy devised that is both coherent and comprehensive, the United States must move not just to thwart the ISIS menace, but to destroy it. It isn’t clear what that will take, but whatever it takes must be brought to bear.
On the latest edition of “Fox News Sunday,” commentator George Will said: “Remember Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule—if you break it, you own it. We’ve broken two states in the Middle East. We broke by our policies the state of Libya; we broke by our policies the state of Iraq. And we own the rubble.” Host Chris Wallace asked, “So, when we own the rubble, does that mean we have the responsibility for fixing it?”
“No,” replied Will, “we have a responsibility to learn the lesson at long last that we can’t fix states like this.”
Correct. But we have a responsibility also to protect ourselves from forces bent on attacking us. It’s a new day. How we got here may be worthy of debate, particularly if it exposes the foolish U.S. policies that destroyed anti-Islamist forces in the Middle East and thus brought us to this unfortunate pass. But that can’t save us from the threat we now face.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.