Magazine article The American Prospect

Accelerating the Fight against ISIS

Magazine article The American Prospect

Accelerating the Fight against ISIS

Article excerpt

We are at a dangerous moment in the interplay of foreign and domestic politics. Jihadist attacks are a boon to the right in Europe and America, and the right's indiscriminate threats against Muslims at home and abroad are a boon to the jihadists. This is a familiar cycle, a spiral of violence and fear in which the extremes feed off each other. During the next year, there is no greater challenge than stopping that spiral.

In the United States, the challenge takes on particular urgency because of the 2016 election. Donald Trump and other Republican candidates play upon public anxieties, fanning hostility to Muslims and promising a more aggressive military response to terrorism. Ted Cruz says, "Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country," whereas he would "carpet bomb" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trump also promises to "bomb the hell" out of the enemy and wreak vengeance on the families of terrorists, while calling Obama and the other candidates "weak" and "stupid." The campaign has already degraded public discourse; the election could produce a sharp swing toward a bellicose xenophobia.

While Republicans bluster, the president has calmly insisted that the strategy he is following is the smart and ultimately more effective way to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda. That strategy involves negotiating a cease-fire and resolution of the civil war in Syria and building an international military coalition to defeat ISIS. Emphasizing his opposition to a large American ground war, Obama has nonetheless committed some forces to the fight against ISIS--limited special forces in Syria and a larger number of troops in Iraq. That line has been crossed.

But will this effort be sufficient to make demonstrable progress soon enough--in particular, before next November's election? The longer ISIS enjoys the power and resources it now has, the more risk there is of additional attacks on Western cities, with increasingly dangerous political repercussions. ISIS's offshoots and affiliates now operate in Libya and other countries. The hope among defenders of Obama's approach is that as a quasi-state in its home territory, ISIS will collapse under pressure. This is a plausible scenario, and steadily applying the necessary pressure would be the right way to proceed if there were no urgency to the situation.

Unfortunately, despite some success in recapturing territory from ISIS, there is reason to be skeptical that the president's current approach will result in unmistakable progress, let alone the defeat of ISIS, by November. If for that reason alone, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats running in 2016 will need to put some distance between their position and Obama's without repudiating the president. They will also need to provide voters with an alternative language of power and protection that explains why the simplistic and reckless approach on the right endangers Americans' true safety and security.

THEBE IS PROBABLY no better illustration of the inadequacy of simplistic ideas about the world than the two wars currently unfolding in Syria. One war pits rebel forces against the Assad regime, while the other (which also extends into Iraq) pits allied forces against ISIS. In each war, the local combatants are backed by external powers, but the alliances in one conflict do not match those in the other. For example, Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war but are at least nominally on the same side in the war against ISIS. Anyone who assumes that the world is divided between good guys and bad guys and that we can protect ourselves by "bombing the hell" out of the bad guys will have a hard time understanding these wars, much less providing effective American leadership.

In both the diplomatic and military efforts under way, there is no way to avoid working with bad guys. In the civil war, the rebel forces fighting Assad include many such evildoers--exponents of "radical Islam," as Republicans like to say--whose cooperation is essential to a settlement. …

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