US long-term engagement in the fight against terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, might be inevitable.
Certainly, such crises are not entirely of the US president’s making. But for the president and the US, the world’s lone reigning superpower, such criticism comes with the territory. Critics, Americans, America’s foreign partners and even its enemies are telling the US something. The country is slipping on the international stage.
In his defense, President Barack Obama points out that America cannot control events around the world. Furthermore, he argues, in places like Syria and Iraq, the US cannot take the actions that the parties themselves are unwilling to undertake, whether it is repairing the Sunni–Shiite rift throughout the Muslim world or setting up more inclusive forms of government.
Moreover, the president and his supporters assert that US military forces cannot be dispatched everywhere conflicts arise, even if these conflicts may potentially threaten to escalate beyond their immediate environs. The US record of late is not good — for example in Iraq and Afghanistan — and US troop engagement cannot be a substitute for necessary on-the-ground changes, whether it is carrying out political or economic reforms, ending corruption, expanding individual freedom or strengthening rule of law. As a result, deploying US combat forces to eastern Europe, for example, or to northern Iraq fails to address core problems.
Obama’s critics, on the other hand, claim he is simply unwilling to use US military might in anything but the most extreme circumstances, or only in matters that directly threaten American lives or interests. So far, that has meant supporting the bombing campaign in Libya to oust Muammar Qaddafi, but doing little to help establish a stable government there. Or coming to the relief of genocide-threatened Yazidis in northern Iraq, but not stemming the Islamic State’s march through Iraq and Syria.
The Middle East is undergoing a period of seminal change. Ruling regimes and societies are challenged on multiple fronts — internal, external, political, social, cultural, religious, economic and environmental. A region historically resistant to change and often isolated from the rest of the world is now under great pressure to change almost instantly.
Americans appear genuinely concerned about problems abroad and America’s perceived weakness. According to a New York Times and CBS poll, 58% of Americans now disapprove of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Some debate whether it is the administration’s inability to positively influence or unwillingness to engage in some of these crises. Nevertheless, Americans seem to want a more engaged administration on the world scene. But how much, where and how remain subjects of much debate.
The Need for a Revamped US Foreign Policy
The employment of US forces abroad without an overarching policy and goal is indeed folly, a lesson re-learned the hard way in Iraq in 2003-11. Any policy, especially one involving US military forces, must not only address US interests, but also reflect US values. And that may be this administration’s most apparent deficiency.
Preaching sermons about responsible 21st century government behavior rings hollow in Beijing and Moscow. Threats to brutal governments who murder citizens and children on an early-20th century-scale are easily brushed off in Damascus. And announcing pin-prick air attacks against groups promising and practicing genocide is risibly dismissed by the rampaging Islamic State operating in the hotbed of extremism along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Preaching, threatening and announcing are no substitute for policy and action.
Is there one place in the world where the US might act, one issue or one initiative the US might take up decisively without fear of failure or recrimination? Is there one single cause to which it might commit itself that serves America’s interests — which figures highly among the values of Americans and its friends and allies around the world — restores stability, improves the human condition and yet also eludes the trap of the much-feared quagmire?
There is such a challenge and it cries out for more vigorous and concerted US action and leadership: fighting and defeating terrorism, especially the jihadist-inspired kind that pervades much of the Middle East.
Seminal Change in the Middle East
The Middle East is undergoing a period of seminal change. Ruling regimes and societies are challenged on multiple fronts — internal, external, political, social, cultural, religious, economic and environmental. A region historically resistant to change and often isolated from the rest of the world is now under great pressure to change almost instantly. One would have to reach back to western Europe’s Reformation and Renaissance to find a region beset by so much seemingly overwhelming change.
In Europe of the 14th-17th centuries, the change agents were confined to a relatively few categories of society — artists, writers, academicians, philosophers, church and government power brokers, and those with the money to back the former and gain an influential ear among the latter. Limited availability of the written word and the ability to read and understand it, and the extended period of time over which changes occurred ensured that change happened at what we would probably term today a more “human” pace. Arms were in the hands of few, governments most often. Even so, Europe faced its own version of human nightmares in its march of change, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Inquisition.
Not so in today’s Middle East. Thanks to instant communication, anyone with a mobile device, Instagram and a Twitter account can be a change agent. Moreover, the interactive world of today virtually demands that if they wish to play a role and be a part of the global community and especially the global economy, then governments and the people of the Middle East will have to adapt and change quickly. In fact, they must first embrace the concept of change, which is a challenge for many Middle Eastern societies
Islamist extremists, increasingly equipped with arms previously reserved for the state, seem to be reacting most strongly to this change imperative, seeing it as imposed from outside on the tradition-bound people of the Middle East and in conflict with traditional culture. Their solution is a return to a pure form of Islam that, in fact, has never existed.
Defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations cannot be an end in itself, though we must be sure to do it thoroughly. Careful thought must be given to what comes afterward and how it comes.
The changes needed in today’s Middle East are infinite in scope and complexity. The solutions, despite glib claims to the contrary, are not self-evident. The peoples of the Middle East will have to address these issues at their own pace and in a way that is consistent with their unique cultures and religious beliefs.
But they will not be able to do so, as long as there is one party whose ideology claims “our way or death.” They cannot tackle such changes while under threat from groups such as the Islamic State, professing a ruthlessly ascetic, primitively sterile and monochromatic vision of the world that is unable to abide the diverse palette of the Middle East, the world and human history.
Around the region, some of the world’s most violent extremist groups operate unhindered or ineffectively checked. They make uncompromising demands and threaten violence against all who reject them. They use the lives of the innocent and defenseless as bargaining chips, some brazenly advertising their brutality. They kidnap innocent school girls, publicly behead passive resistors or innocent observers, destroy centuries-old cultural icons, exterminate whole groups of those with alternative beliefs, and force captured women into marriage. These groups include: Hamas in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; al-Nusrah Front in Syria; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria and Mali; al-Shabab in Somalia, Kenya and Uganda; Ansar al-Sharia in Libya; al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East and South Asia; and the dozens of others designated by the US government in the region and around the world.
In places like Iraq and Syria, such groups are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. They threaten governments — for example in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — and undermine regional security, including in Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the Gulf. They have warned the West that it will not be immune to their depredations.
The objective in confronting such groups ought to be clear: eradication, or at a minimum, total disarming. Their ideology of murder, mayhem and martyrdom is antithetical to order and stability, and abhorrent in the international community. If the changes that the nations of the Middle East must undertake to progress are difficult, doing so in the face of such threats makes that change nearly impossible. Their violent advocacy of retreat into a mythical, impossibly inhumane and ultimately unnatural past is an impossible obstacle to progress.
Compromise with or mere containment of such groups is tantamount to surrender. Moreover, a strategy of treating such groups as a matter for law enforcement and traditional justice is defeatist. All of them consider themselves at war in the countries in which they operate and with the US, Israel, moderate Arab states and the West. If they have declared war, shouldn’t we?
For the US, an approach that seeks to vanquish these groups would mark a significant departure from its current course. Merely designating and monitoring such groups can be only the first step. Significantly more resources for US special forces and intelligence are key. President Obama’s proposed $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, though the right idea, is not enough. And the proposal to train and equip Syrian rebels is patently inadequate.
Defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations cannot be an end in itself, though we must be sure to do it thoroughly. Careful thought must be given to what comes afterward and how it comes. So, providing weapons and training, but failing to help prepare moderate rebels in Syria, Sunni tribes in Iraq, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or tribesmen in Nigeria neglects the conditions that led to the rise of terrorism in the first place. That task may be a far grander undertaking than “merely” defeating terrorists, but the lesson of eight-plus years in Iraq is that long-term engagement that promotes a more stable political evolution may be inevitable.
For now, however, what is most important — and where the US administration must now firmly plant its foreign policy flag — is showing the political will and leading the international community in defeating these groups and stamping out jihadist-inspired terrorism. European and moderate Middle East governments with which the US already cooperates extensively will join a concerted effort to eliminate the threat of these groups, but only if they see resolute US leadership backed by firm action.
Such an effort would inevitably entail deploying more than just special operations forces in some places. Conventional ground combat troops, as well as naval and air force personnel, ships and aircraft, would likely be necessary in some limited instances. Admittedly, that is not what many Americans wish to hear from their president these days. But US and Western military leadership, and even forces working in concert with local security forces are indispensable in countering this terrorism threat.
Extensive on-the-ground work among indigenous peoples and local tribes, as coalition forces did in the Iraqi Sahwa — or Sunni Awakening Movement — in 2006-08, would be critical to any effective campaign. The US and its partners must also be willing to step up economic assistance, especially since these potentially friendly groups often thrive in economically depressed areas.
Furthermore, this antiterrorist alliance must be prepared to ensure that marginalized groups are fully integrated into governing structures. In Iraq, despite the exceptionally effective US-supported Sahwa Movement, the US turned the program over to the Iraqi government, which under then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to marginalize the very Sunni Iraqis who had fought to oust al-Qaeda from the country. Maliki’s actions created the conditions for the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State to enter Iraq virtually unimpeded and often be welcomed by Iraq’s beleaguered Sunni population. An Iraqi government policy that had given Sunnis a greater stake and role in civil governance in Iraq would have more effectively thwarted the Islamic State’s advance into Iraq’s western and northern provinces.
In addition to the actions outlined above, all governments participating in the antiterrorist alliance must also be put on notice that lax enforcement of antiterrorism laws in their own states or under-the-table political, financial or religious support for extremism risks ostracism by the international community and even sanctions. Ultimately, of course, they should be persuaded to undertake a gradual opening of the political space for nonviolent groups advocating for peaceful, democratic change.
No Time Like the Present
The time for such action by the US could not be more propitious. As the Islamic State has well demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, terrorism, like any human endeavor whether for good or evil, evolves. Terrorism, capitalizing on its successes in places like Syria, Yemen or Libya and its failures as in Iraq in 2007-08, is galvanizing people and movements, offering an ideology bereft of a future, but nevertheless seductive in its simplistic back-to-the-future solution.
Groups not only carry out acts for which they are so justifiably vilified, but also have begun to administer villages, towns and even cities — by engaging in state-building. Moreover, their victories in places like Syria and Iraq are attracting more recruits. Osama bin Laden once asserted: “People will back a strong horse against a weak one.” The Islamic State is behaving like a strong horse, as are Hezbollah, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Most disconcerting, they are becoming an extremists’ black hole. Their “strong horse strategy” (threatening, conquering, subduing, ruling and advancing) and simplistic ideology (returning to a mythical, pure Islam that never existed) to address all the problems of the Middle East are attracting others. Their strategy and ideology also enable them to form dangerous alliances, for example, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Islamic State with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. It is a dynamic that must be changed quickly.
Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have all made their intentions clear: bow to their demands or face unrelenting violence. A vigorously pursued policy designed to defeat such groups in the Middle East and establish the conditions for stable political evolution must be our only response.
US foreign policy might also regain the moral and political high ground, where America and its friends want it to be.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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