During a recent press conference regarding the situation in the Middle East, the President of the United States referred to the organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a “JV team.” While a statement like that is at best incredibly foolish and at worst a danger to the lives of many Americans, the unsettling implications that underlie such a statement deserve attention.
A person who makes such a statement would have to be unfamiliar with the most basic tenant of warfare: one must always assume that their adversary is stronger, smarter, and more determined than they can imagine. It is foolish to assume that a policy-maker can know what the enemy is thinking, and more importantly, what the enemy is truly capable of accomplishing. By attempting to lessen the severity of the situation by calling ISIS a “JV team,” the President does not just violate the most basic principles of war; he has also put any future coalition forces at a strategic and psychological disadvantage. The veracity and creativity with which ISIS fights must not be downplayed.
The other week at a State Department press briefing, a member of the press asked State Department official Jen Psaki how it is that , “we have a Commander-in-Chief that launched more than one-hundred air strikes at a given enemy who is reporting to the Congress under the aegis of the War Powers Act. who is watching our people beheaded by this enemy, but who for some reason feels queasy about saying that we are in fact at war with this enemy?” Psaki refused to state that the U.S. is at war with ISIS, and technically the U.S. is not. Yet even though legalistically we understand that the relationship regarding war and non-governmental entities is a difficult concept, the actual concept of war is not. It was only thirteen years ago that President Bush declared war on Al-Qaeda, a similarly dangerous organization. In reality, this is the ostensible byproduct of the United States’ poor and incohesive strategy in the Middle East for the past few years.
Moreover, unfortunately, the U.S. failure to merge the interests of regional allies on a plethora of issues– the Iranian nuclear crisis, the Syrian civil war, and an increasingly aggressive and meddling Russia– has led to a lack of confidence by many in the region regarding the focus and steadfastness of American strategy. This has made it more difficult to confront the current threat posed by ISIS, both in regional and international diplomatic circles. The outspokenness of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, regarding any action against the Islamic State in Syria, will continue to plague U.S. and European efforts to combat the group. The unsettling innuendo lying menacingly beneath the administration’s words and actions is that it does not understand the severity of the threat ISIS poses within the context of an increasingly lawless and sectarian region. The President, instead, chooses to view ISIS as a coincidental product of a Syrian civil war, while he lacks a greater conceptual grasp of the sectarian divide currently engulfing the Middle East.
But here are a few harsh realities about which the United States should cogitate before deciding on the exact nature and potency of their approach against the Islamic State.
Tolerance is not innate to the region. The ideals of democracy and representative government rely not only on complex supporting institutions for their success, but also on the ingrained cultural principle of tolerance. The West lives in social milieus where a multi-religious society is seen as an advantage. Citizens are free to pursue different lifestyles, life choices, and personal decisions, so long as they do not infringe on the lives of others. These are the hallmarks of what allows Western society, and the representative democracy with which it is so delicately intertwined, to flourish.
But tolerance and diversity are not givens, and a certain 2009 Cairo speech, assumed that they were. These principles are learned, cultivated, and must be guarded and protected. To think that populations in the Levant region simply want to live in the Western vision of ‘peace’ is a utopian fantasy.
And there exists in the current American government a post Bush-era obsession that many of the current troubles in the Middle East stem from past Western involvement. Regardless of past mistakes, current U.S. policy makers are treading dangerously close to letting those very same mistakes cloud their future judgement. Until this diseased way of thinking is removed from U.S. policy, and all options are on the table, the West will be unable to effectively combat groups like the Islamic State. The notion that if the United States had left some residual forces behind in the region, the current situation would look vastly different, is not unreasonable. And it may very well be that to effectively destroy ISIS some boots will need to be on the ground in the region. Yet, the administrations constant reiterations that no soldiers will be participating in any of the proposed operations to repel the Islamic State, seem to indicate that an acceptance of the current realities on the ground is not likely. If NATO and the U.S. seek to confront the Islamic State, they must be ready to consider what will required to ‘win’. A good starting point would be to accept that two American journalists were not beheaded because of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
As Western leaders begin to decide how to confront ISIS, they may want to reflect on the information currently available on the group. The Islamic State is not a terrorist group; it is a terrorist army. With a net worth in the billions of dollars, the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world. They control numerous oil fields in Syria and Iraq, reaping profits from the black market reselling of oil. They have raided numerous banks over Iraq, possibly looting a reported 500 million dollars from a bank in Mosul. Their level of organizational structure is alarming. Seized assets and money, including from ransoms, are largely sent to regional commanders to be divided up and handed out to units most in need of assistance. It is no great secret that the group has captured large amounts of heavy equipment from the U.S. equipped Iraqi Army; American Humvees have been spotted near Aleppo, Syria. That is over 250 miles from Iraq. The Islamic State has shown a high military acumen in its ability to carry out coordinated attacks, on multiple occasions overrunning better equipped and numerically superior forces. They are not the typical bandits who storm villages with RPG’s and Kalashnikovs, screaming and shooting in the air. They are an organized army.
The borders are fluid. Sunnis and Shias are taking sides. If they ever do get organized and settled into more concrete blocks, it would not be far off to see the development of a war of such great barbarity and destruction, perhaps not seen since the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. That war wiped out about a third of Germany. If the West has a dog in such a theoretical fight is hard to know. That is a discussion for another day. But for the time being, leaders in the West today should read Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War. If they do, they might understand that war is not separate from policy. Rather war is a continuation of political intercourse enacted through other avenues. So having a cohesive strategic approach to the region must go hand in hand with any military action. Most importantly, NATO, Europe, and the United States should heed with great caution the words of the great Prussian strategist when he warned that, “War is an act of force and there is no logical limit to the application of that force.” The Islamic State is coming for Europe and the United States. That is a fact. The West is willing to unleash an act of force without setting preconditions on its application. That is speculation.