What should the U.S. do about ISIS? Stop seeking quick wins

Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared as part of an experts’ discussion published in the National Journal.

National Journal Staff: The past few years have seen the official conclusions of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the United States had no time to breathe a collective sigh of relief before the rapid advances of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) were presenting us with another political, ideological, possibly military quandary in the Middle East. How should the United States respond? We asked leading foreign policy intellectuals to propose their best answers.

Shadi Hamid: In the war on ISIS, the Obama administration has so far offered what can only be described as a containment strategy. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But if the goal is to defeat ISIS (not destroy it—that’s likely impossible), then there remains a striking mismatch between means and ends. Our ISIS strategy is oriented around short-term calculations and the desire for quick wins—not recognizing that quick wins, when we manage them, are both tainted and unsustainable. Even our victories in the Middle East, as few and far between as they have been, aren’t quite victories.

A major problem since ISIS took Mosul in June 2014 has been the so-called “Iraq first” approach, which essentially postpones any serious reckoning with ISIS gains in Syria. Both ISIS and Shia militias treat Iraq and Syria as a combined theater. Not doing so ourselves puts us at a profound disadvantage.

The United States has allowed itself to get stuck in a circular loop in Iraq: The more ISIS gains, the more the Iraqi government relies on Shia militias. And the more Iraq uses militias, the more Sunni support ISIS gets. Breaking the cycle requires thinking beyond how quickly Ramadi or Mosul can be recaptured; instead, we should be formulating policies that are effective in the medium to long run, even if they may not bring the rapid gains that domestic public opinion is demanding.

The most obvious component of any revised strategy is matching the focus on Iraq with something comparable in Syria. This would require a financial commitment well beyond the $500 million currently allotted for training 5,000 rebels, a tiny number in a theater of more than 100,000 fighters. The unrealistic hope that these U.S.-backed rebels would focus almost entirely on ISIS and ignore the Assad regime points to what has long been the gaping hole in the administration’s Syria policy. At some point, if the United States and its partners ever do get around to training a significant number of fighters, they will inevitably clash with the Assad regime (which most in the Syrian opposition see as either an equal or greater threat than ISIS). At that point, the rebels will require air support against Assad, in the form of no-fly or no-drive zones. Is that something the United States is willing to commit to?

Beyond Syria and Iraq, the basic assumptions of our ISIS strategy need to be rethought. As long as the Middle East has both failing states and strong, brutal (but brittle) states, ISIS and its ilk—or something like it—will exist. It’s no mistake that ISIS is the dominant opposition force in the two countries riddled by civil war: ISIS’s brutality is at least in part a function of what were already extremely brutal contexts.

U.S. strategy must address governance deficits not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Yemen, Libya, and even more “stable” countries, such as Egypt. Even if we don’t want to talk about “democracy”—increasingly a bad word in Washington discourse—the fact that our closest allies in the war against ISIS are among the region’s most repressive governments should give us pause. The closing of democratic space, the marginalization of peaceful opposition, and the lack of a real conception of citizenship all fuel extremism. The failure of politics and the seeming effectiveness of brute force—which, in a sense, is the story of the Arab Spring—has made ISIS’s message more appealing, including among those who otherwise abhor its heterodox take on Islam and Islamic law.

For policymakers under the day-to-day pressures of dealing with various Middle East crises, the short term will invariably take precedence over the long. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a better balance between the two—as well as a more honest appreciation of the trade-offs of tactical gains that may end up, in due time, undermining our efforts to deal ISIS a decisive blow.