President Obama’s plan for dealing with ISIS is a step in the right direction, albeit one that doesn’t go far enough. That’s because ISIS is the symptom and immediate threat, not the primary problem: The Middle East is a fundamentally ill region, one that has repeatedly exported its problems to the United States and the rest of the world and will continue to do so for decades. Iran’s Islamic revolution, Saddam’s rapacious Iraq, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the slaughter in Syria, Darfur. The litany goes on.
Despite the President’s repeated efforts to deny it, the bitter reality is that the West is embroiled in a normative and strategic conflict with much of the Islamic world, a conflict that it did not seek but is nonetheless underway. On the normative level, the conflict is between a West that enshrines the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this life, and the fundamentalists and others, for whom much of this vision is anathema. Theirs is a vision not of life and liberty—and happiness, if it’s possible at all, is only truly available in the next life. It is a vision of the future shrouded in theocratic or authoritarian backwardness, oppression, and poverty. This normative clash is not about mushy, sentimental ideas, but about the fundamental values that will govern international life and, increasingly, our lives at home.
Strategically, the conflict is between a West that seeks to promote stability and the existing order in the region, along with gradual socio-economic and political reform, and the fundamentalists who seek to overthrow the regional and international systems and to restore the era of Islamic grandeur. ISIS’ establishment of a caliphate, long written off in the West as the dream of isolated loonies, is the first step toward the realization of these visions. In one way or another—Sunni or Shi‘a, state (Iran) or non-state (ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas)—many fundamentalists share a dream of a united Muslim world regaining its place of leadership in the international community at the expense of the non-believing West.
Unfortunately, the President has yet to abandon his well-meaning but misguided belief, embodied in his Cairo speech and other attempts to reach out to the Arab world early in his first term, that the West’s problems with the Arabs and parts of the broader Muslim world are a function of specific disagreements and grievances that, if rectified, would lead to significantly improved relations. In fact, the problems are far more fundamental. It’s time to realize that we are in the midst of a generational battle, and that the U.S. and West simply do not have the luxury of disengaging from the Middle East, pivoting to Asia, avoiding “stupid wars”, and just hoping for the better. To ignore this harsh reality is to invite the next ISIS—and these movements will get progressively worse.
ISIS is the immediate threat and must be dealt with effectively, but we should view our efforts to deal with it as part of a much broader and multi-dimensional effort. Here is what an overall strategy would look like:
State building: No, it’s not a dirty word, and the U.S. has done it successfully in the past. What is needed is a Western and, to the extent possible, global commitment to a decades-long “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East to diminish those grievances that do stem from a lack of socio-economic opportunity. This will not solve the problem; many of the region’s ills and grievances have little or nothing to do with economics. Still, it’s an essential step. Resources are scarce, but certainly Europe, which faces an increasingly realistic prospect of mass immigration and turmoil spilling over from its neighbors across the Mediterranean, should understand the need. The Arab oil producers should also be enlisted in the effort. The U.S. has long had a “security for oil” deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it is time to add regional stability and development to the equation—and no one has a greater interest in this than they.
Political reform: Democracy, as we learned bitterly in Iraq and elsewhere, is not easily planted in Middle Eastern soil; it simply does not yet enjoy the necessary prerequisites. There are, however, three reasons that we shouldn’t abandon the effort, our failed experience notwithstanding. First, it is the right thing to do; it is what we are about. We cannot sustain a long-term effort that is not informed by our fundamental values, even if we wanted to. Second, following the Arab Spring, short-lived though it may have been, many of the Arab peoples are no longer just oppressed masses. They have gained, or will eventually demand, a voice in the governance of their lives. Third, stability and long-term resolution of the region’s ills require political reform. This isn’t to say we need overnight democratization—and certainly not an effort subject to the vagaries of American politics, as was the case in Iraq—but a slow, gradual and persistent approach, based on a commitment to stay the course. Our approach must be tailored to the needs of each country, but also subordinated to considerations of stability and strategic interest. For example, we need clear and explicit support for gradual change in Egypt, glacial change in Saudi Arabia, and major change in Iran.
Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation: Terrorism of all types must be rooted out, regardless of motivation, and dangerous states such as Iran simply cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation are at the heart of Western interests in the region. Western policy will have to continue to span the gulf between two competing needs: working with Arab countries to promote reform and better relations, and combating the threats emanating from them. Fortunately, there is far greater understanding and support for this goal in the region than in the past.
Limited military engagement: Today’s adversaries in the region do not have major conventional armies, and there is no need for large-scale ground interventions, such as in 2003. President Obama is wrong, however, to repeatedly stress the limits to U.S. military involvement, and that no combat troops will be deployed whatsoever. The truth is that special forces boots are already on the ground, and additional limited deployments are likely to be necessary. The President must address the concerns of a U.S. public wary of further entanglements in the Middle East, but making such promises emboldens U.S. adversaries and fails to prepare the public for the effort ahead. Bush already made this mistake, promising the public that the war in Iraq could be won on the cheap. Bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the Iranian nuclear program, if talks fall through, do not require major military commitments and risks; they do, however, entail some.
A joint effort: In the end, the West’s primary motivation for prolonged engagement in the Middle East is because of the threats the region poses to its interests. The U.S. cannot do it all alone, a Middle East reconstruction plan, political reform and possibility of some military action, all require an effective international coalition. It is a long-term effort, requiring deep Western resolve, of a type rarely manifested in recent years (especially by Europe). Europe and other allies must do their share, and this is especially true of the Arab countries. Every partner will have particular concerns and constraints, but the U.S. must make clear that a generational battle requires a different order of response, and that the nature of the response will have an important impact on their overall relations with it. Turkey, for example, must understand the new priorities. When the U.S. shows true resolve and leadership, partners tend to fall line more readily.
A word of caution is in order here. In the end, it is all about determination, persistence and a commitment to stay the course. Experience has taught us, however, that political reality and decision-makers’ resolve are not always up to the task. Whole-hearted efforts won’t guarantee success, of course, but they are a prerequisite. The President has spent the past three years doing his very best to stay out of the Middle East morass, on the assumption that the U.S. could not significantly affect the course of events. Developments in the region have now forced him to undertake somewhat greater engagement, but unless he is willing to truly engage, partial measures may just make things worse. The President has to define clear objectives, both for his own administration and, hopefully, for future ones as well.
An old adage warns that “if you do not visit the Middle East, it will visit you.” The U.S. simply cannot escape the region; no matter how much it wishes to do so, its interest there are too wide and deep. The prerequisite for a successful generational struggle is the recognition that this is what we face, and that the costs of benign neglect are unacceptable.