What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

Secondly, Kerry again frames the need to destroy ISIS as the best way to manage dangers posed to Americans, but it seems more likely the opposite is true. Again, that shouldn’t be a knockout argument against the policy, but framing a policy aiming at total destruction of ISIS—a group that our intel folks say isn’t trying to attack US territory—as the best way to avoid risk to Americans seems dubious.

You wouldn’t know it from the hot rhetoric, but Republicans are actually more or less where the administration is, policy-wise, and their arguments are hardly more coherent. The Republicans’ Great White Dove, Sen. Rand Paul, recently endorsed destruction as the desired policy goal for dealing with ISIS, and even suggested that he’d like Washington to ally with Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar Assad to do it.

But what was more striking was the argument proffered by his adviser, Cold War Republican Richard Burt, in an interview with National Review, describing why Paul came to his view. Here’s the payoff from Burt:

“The thing that makes ISIS a particularly serious challenge is that we do have interests” in the Middle East, Burt says — in a thriving Kurdish minority and a stable, successful Iraqi government that integrates the country’s Sunni minority.

It’s certainly true that the Islamic State poses a proximate threat to both the Kurdish minority’s thriving and the Iraqi government’s success and stability and integration of the country’s Sunni minority. But so do dozens of other factors that eight years of US military presence on the ground didn’t solve. The very same political forces that led to a Sunni insurgency during the aughts have contributed to the rise of ISIS. If those politics don’t change—and I see little reason to believe we can make that happen—then you may make gains against ISIS, but the underlying political disease that’s causing the problem remains untreated, and possibly untreatable.

In other words, even if the Islamic State is destroyed, there will be an array of other spoilers endangering a thriving Kurdish minority and a stable, successful Iraqi government that integrates the country’s Sunni minority. In fact, these other problems preexisted and helped lead to the successes of the Islamic State. Are we just supposed to cross that bridge when we get to it?

And none of this says anything about Syria, which everyone agrees can’t be isolated from talking about what to do with the Islamic State. And we all know who we would like to lose in Syria: namely, the two most powerful actors, Bashar Assad’s regime and the army of the Islamic State, along with Assad’s most important patron, Iran. But who would be left to win? Nobody argues that the rump Free Syrian Army is in any condition to take power in Damascus some time soon. So if everyone we want to lose loses—Assad, Iran, and the Islamic State—what is left? It’s a pity they can’t all lose, sure, but they can’t.

Doing something to avenge the deaths of Sotloff and Foley while staying out of other people’s civil wars seems to be where the American people are. But the Obama administration appears poised to get the country into another multi-year war in the Middle East.

According to anonymous advisers in the New York Times, phase one is the air campaign against ISIS, which has already started, phase two is—wait for it—training, advising and equipping the Iraqi military, and phase three is figuring out what to do with Syria.

So Obama’s ready to start this war, handle the bombing, training, advising and equipping, then hand off the Syria part to his successor.

Sounds to me like stupid stuff.