Thursday, February 12, 2015

What to do about ISIS

I've written a couple of Ethical Musings' posts about ISIS (Yet another immoral war in the Middle East and Defeating ISIS. Since those posts, ISIS has committed a number of high profile atrocities (e.g., immolating a Jordanian pilot) and suffered some military reverses (e.g., lost its battle to keep control of Kobani). ISIS now controls about a third of both Syria and Iraq.

In response, Jordan and several other Arab states, feeling more threatened by ISIS, have stepped up their military efforts against ISIS. President Obama is in the process of seeking Congressional authorization for the use of military force against ISIS and its successor organizations.

Short of total war, only Arabs can defeat ISIS. ISIS is not really an American problem. In spite of ISIS' rhetoric, and extravagant claims by individuals alleging that they have acted on ISIS' behalf, ISIS poses no significant near-term threat to Europe or the United States. ISIS lacks the ability to project power in military actions against either Europe or the US. Projecting power against targets on another continent requires air power (planes and missiles), ships, and expeditionary ground units that ISIS simply does not have. An occasional terrorist attack--and no public, credible evidence of such a threat presently exists--would certainly be an irritant, could seriously harm a relatively small number of victims, and can incite panic among the cowardly. However, an ISIS terror attack would not represent an existential threat against even the smallest European state (e.g., Monaco or Luxembourg), let alone the US, which is the global superpower.

News commentators and politicians who hype the ISIS' threat have aligned themselves, hopefully unintentionally, with ISIS. Inflammatory rhetoric that suggests ISIS poses a real threat to Europe or the US distorts the facts, actually enhances ISIS' global stature, and multiplies many times the adverse consequences of any ISIS terror attack.

European and US voters and legislators should evaluate current claims about the need for, and potential efficacy of, military aid to defeat ISIS in the context of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan wars. First, military assistance provided to Iraq for more than a decade failed to produce effective Iraqi armed forces. Why will another six months or even six years of assistance be successful? ISIS primarily fights with equipment, supplies, and weapons that it has scrounged or purchased on the black market. Ten thousand, even one hundred thousand, US military personnel serving as Iraqi trainers and advisers sets the US on a trajectory parallel to the Vietnam War that will inevitably lead to another defeat.

Second, after receiving billions of dollars of military assistance, the Iraqi armed forces now claim that they are inadequately equipped, a claim I find laughable. The problem is not lack of materiel but lack of motivation and will to win. Nobody can do for the Iraqis what they are unwilling to do for themselves. Iraq's Shiite majority should have a strong incentive to defend themselves and their territory against ISIS, an incentive that ISIS' unrelenting pogroms against Shiites should consistently reinforce. Iraq has a much larger military, with more equipment and funds, than what ISIS' fighters possess.

Third, exclusive reliance on air power has never achieved victory in military conflict. Air power can tip the scale of a tactical engagement but is not strategically decisive. Again, this is a lesson that the US should have learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Furthermore, air power is no substitute for Iraqi fighters having the will to win.

Fourth, Congress should debate legislation authorizing the use of military force against ISIS. The legislation should be tightly circumscribed, not open ended like the legislation that authorized the use of military force against al Qaeda. Congress, in public debate, needs to reclaim its Constitutional role as the sole arm of the US government empowered to declare war. Defeating ISIS leaves the Syrian problem unresolved, and perhaps will leave Syria more vulnerable to anti-Israeli and anti-US interests.

Fifth, Iran wants ISIS defeated. Cooperating with Iran to defeat ISIS might introduce a new and more constructive era into Middle Eastern politics.


We should stand with our friends. However, we cannot fight their battles for them and we should not treat them as inferiors unable to win without our aid. ISIS and its ideology of hate and dominance are a losing cause, but only the people most threatened by ISIS--the citizens of Syria, Iraq, and their immediate neighbors--can defeat ISIS.

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