Democratic countries, when faced with round-the-clock coverage of a media-savvy group like ISIS with its horrific beheadings, almost always over-react. The September 11 attacks led America to invade Iraq in 2003, causing heavy casualties and the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars in pursuit of policies that arguably made the situation in the country worse. While we need to contain ISIS, we also need to recognize that it does not pose anything close to an existential threat to the interests of the United States or other democratic countries. The international press is finally catching up to the fact that the Islamic State is a bit of a paper tiger. The cover of this week’s Economist is titled “Spreading Fear, Losing Ground”; there has been continuing coverage of the Iraqi government’s offensive against Fallujah that has put ISIS on the run.
By spilling out of Syria and conquering much of northern Iraq, ISIS at one point looked like an unstoppable juggernaut. But this group is in fact an organization with tremendous vulnerabilities. The word “state” in its title is more of an aspiration useful in recruiting new militants than a description of reality on the ground. Being a state implies the ability to deliver basic public services like water, electricity, sanitation, and schooling, things that ISIS has not been able to provide. It is landlocked and its territory extends over barren desert vulnerable to air attack; what few resources it has like oil must be smuggled out through Turkey and Iraq. ISIS has almost no external supporters: China, Russia, Europe, the United States, Iran, and virtually all of the Arab world agree that it is an evil organization. Its manpower comes from an unnatural alliance between a bunch of young, unhappy misfits from abroad, and well-trained Baathists who were supporters of the dictator Saddam Hussein.
Why then does ISIS appear powerful and menacing? It is because all of the states surrounding them are so weak. Syria, of course, has collapsed as a state. Iraq was governed by one of the most incompetent leaders in recent memory, Nuri al-Maliki, who did everything he could to alienate the country’s Sunni minority. ISIS is following a broader pattern where terrorists flow into weakly governed territories, like Boko Haram today in northern Nigeria. There is no other long-term solution than for the other regional powers to develop their own state institutions and acquire the ability to take back territory from this group.
The primary target of ISIS is not foreign democracies, but Shiites in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the greater Middle East. It is part of a spreading sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, a war that has been fed by support from Saudi Arabia and Iran. ISIS poses an acute military threat to its Shiite neighbors, and it acts as a magnet for unemployed young men in other countries lacking girlfriends or job opportunities. These latter will attempt violent acts like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, but they should be regarded more as dangerous criminals than as national security threats to countries outside the region.
The starting point for a sensible policy rests on the realization that the U.S. and other democratic countries have no reason to favor one religious sect over another in the Sunni-Shiite war. None of the major players shares significant values with democracies in the developed world; both sides have been guilty of fomenting terrorism and destabilizing their neighbors. The outside world does have an interest in a stable settlement of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. But if there was any lesson to be drawn from the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that no one in Washington or any other outside capital has the wisdom to construct a stable and just political order in the Middle East any time in the near future.
What the outside world does have is an interest in keeping the conflict from spilling over into other countries, and in protecting innocent people from butchery to the extent we can. This implies that our optimal policy should be one of containment. That is, the U.S. and its friends should use airpower and military assistance to ensure that no one group, whether ISIS or the Assad regime, gets so strong that it can impose its will on the region.
There is a historical model for such a policy, which is called “offshore balancing.” This is the policy that Britain classically followed vis à vis Europe. Britain had no permanent friends or enemies, and would throw its weight against whichever great power looked like it was going to dominate the continent. Over the centuries, it opposed Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Soviet Union; up until the World Wars in the 20th century, it was very reluctant to put troops on the ground and influenced events primarily through naval power and economic policies.
This is the type of policy that outside democracies should follow toward ISIS. They should avoid setting firm and likely unattainable goals like “Assad must go” or “degrade and destroy ISIS,” in favor of a policy of balancing these powers off against one another. They should not develop permanent friends or enemies, in the manner of the NATO alliance or the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, but rather retain the flexibility to work with or oppose different parties at different times. There has been a lot of fear that the Shiite militias engaged in the battle for Fallujah will exact retribution on the Sunni population there, and that they are being commanded by an Iranian general. These are reasonable concerns, and if the Shiites turn into aggressors, the U.S. should shift sides and back the Sunnis. In the process, however, we should not put troops on the ground, but use airpower and military assistance to lean against whichever actor looks like it is getting dominant.
Avoiding deeper military intervention is critical if we want countries in the region to build strong institutions and take responsibility for their own security. The heavy U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq encouraged “free riding”: the Iraqis in particular never felt they had to build a strong state or national security force because the Americans were always there to do the heavy lifting. American commanders need to restrain themselves and recognize that their stake in this battle is much smaller than that of the government in Baghdad.
A policy of containment and offshore balancing is hard to justify to publics in democratic countries. It does not promise a final settlement of the problem of terrorism and seems cynical in its willingness to let Assad and ISIS fight each other to the death. But the alternatives—either to do nothing, or to leap into the conflict with massive military force as the US did Afghanistan and Iraq—are much less attractive. This should be the lesson we clearly draw from the experience of the past decade.