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Obama Got It Right on the Islamic State

The United States can't defeat the jihadist group — it can only hope to contain it.

US President Barack Obama smiles during a state dinner in Berlin,on June 19, 2013. Obama said Russian and US nuclear weapons should be slashed by up to a third in a keynote speech in front of Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate in which he called for a world of "peace and justice".  AFP PHOTO /POOL/ MICHAEL SOHN        (Photo credit should read MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama smiles during a state dinner in Berlin,on June 19, 2013. Obama said Russian and US nuclear weapons should be slashed by up to a third in a keynote speech in front of Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate in which he called for a world of "peace and justice". AFP PHOTO /POOL/ MICHAEL SOHN (Photo credit should read MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images)

What do we know about how to destroy the Islamic State? Recent history teaches plenty about what not to do in the aftermath of last week’s terror attacks in Paris. Most Americans, and certainly most Europeans, intuitively understand that the United States overreacted to 9/11. The George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, after all, eventually gave birth to Daesh — the so-called Islamic State — and in the course of Washington’s misbegotten war on terror, Americans undermined many of their civil liberties.

That has not stopped a chorus of voices in Washington, and elsewhere in the United States, from demanding that the country’s fears again trump its values. President Barack Obama, fortunately, has so far resisted changing his containment strategy against Daesh, refusing to organize an outright invasion of Syria. (And to his credit, he has warned Americans against hardening their hearts to the plight of Syrian refugees.)

Obama’s strategy may not produce a quick victory. But it’s important to note the president is doing more than merely buying time. Obama has settled on a set of policies that, however modest, represent the only option for eventually defeating this criminal mafia.

Quite obviously, the root of the problem lies in resolving the Syrian civil war. But there is no obvious or easy solution. The United States should not put American troops on the ground to conquer and occupy the territory held by Daesh. That would win the battle, but lose the larger war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Amid such discontent, another group would likely rise to take Daesh’s place.

It would take tens of thousands of Arab boots on the ground to sustainably eliminate Daesh from Syria — and even such a victory would entail a long and difficult occupation for which there are few plausible occupiers.

In Syria, we have virtually no local allies. Not the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad. Not the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front fundamentalist Muslim rebels fighting both the Assad regime and Daesh. While the Kurds fight the terrorists headquartered in the Syrian city of Raqqa, they do so only to preserve their own autonomy and aspirations for independence. The anti-Assad Free Syrian Army seems inconsequential to the battle. And any “moderates” in Syria seem to be fleeing to Europe and the refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

Ironically, Daesh’s greatest natural enemy is Shiite Islam. Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard pose a formidable military threat to Daesh. But the Shiites of Lebanon and the Shiites of Iran are closely allied to the Alawite regime of Assad. Washington, of course, does not wish to empower a Shiite ascendency (not yet anyway). And besides, the Persians are not prepared to expend much blood and treasure in a war against Syria’s Sunni Arab majority. Their primary interest is to preserve their influence in Shiite-dominated Iraq.

No, the Sunni fanatics of the Islamic State can be properly defeated only by Sunni Arab troops. But where are these ostensible allies? They don’t include Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems intent only on fighting the Kurds. Egypt is now ruled by a military dictator, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has more blood on his hands than the general who wielded power prior to the Arab Spring, and is preoccupied with maintaining his own fragile grip on power. Sisi’s armies are too busy dealing with an insurgency in the Sinai to involve itself in distant Syria.

That leaves the other major Sunni power, our traditional ally in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia. For decades, Washington has been selling the House of Saud billions of dollars worth of armaments. It has been less successful in influencing Riyadh’s strategic calculations. Saudi Arabia is now using its sophisticated jet fighters and bombers and well-armed desert militia in a senseless war against a Shiite sect in Yemen.

But there is another reason why we can’t count on the Saudis to defeat the Islamic State: Some wealthy Saudis and many of the kingdom’s Wahhabi clerics are funders and supporters of the self-described Caliphate. Yes, the House of Saud may be direly threatened by the Daesh militants who condemn the royals for their hypocrisy and depravity. But the royals know better than to order their Sunni tribal foot soldiers into battle against fellow Sunnis who spout an extreme brand of Wahhabi ideology.

If there are no local allies who can shoulder the burden, what does that leave? Some have suggested a NATO invasion force could do the job, but the optics would prove disastrous for American interests: That organization is perceived in the Middle East as a front for Washington, and any NATO-led occupation would stir up anti-colonial sentiments.

How about a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a “humanitarian intervention” by a coalition of Western and Arab forces? This might work, but it would require a herculean diplomatic endeavor. The United States would have to get both the Russians and the Chinese on board in order to avoid a Security Council veto. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has already committed Russian military forces to preserve the Assad regime, so it can’t be expected to support the West’s current proposals, which involve replacing Assad with a broad-based coalition government more representative of Syria’s Sunni population. (A more realistic avenue for international diplomacy would be to pursue a cease-fire backed by all the external parties to the Syrian conflict, including the Iranians and Russians, as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently proposed.)

Given all of this, President Barack Obama is right to oppose facile and demagogic cries for war. He is right to be calmly petulant in the face of panic and hysteria. He is right to defend his administration’s policy to slowly contain Daesh, to wear it down with pin-point strikes on their leadership and their cash flows from the sale of black-market oil. If Daesh is a criminal mafia then the correct response is essentially a police action, buttressed by the methodical collection of human intelligence to identify the men who make Daesh work. It may not be glamorous, but it is the only smart policy.

Yes, Daesh must be defeated. But that group is the expression of a psychologically suicidal ideology that must ultimately be defeated in a war of ideas. It’s worth remembering that Daesh has very few adherents; most Sunni Arabs aspire to humanitarianism. Eventually, jihadi nihilism will lose its competition with the values of our evolving global civil society. But in the meantime, Washington would be better off encouraging Arab countries to eventually join the fight than submitting to the temptation to put U.S. troops into a ground war.

Unfortunately, our own domestic political theater may compel us down a less rational path. Obama’s measured approach may not survive the recent murders committed by Daesh followers in Paris, Beirut, and Sinai. Even this president may soon find it hard to resist bipartisan demands to “do something more.” If not in this administration, then likely during the next one, the United States may well do what Daesh wants by blundering into another Middle Eastern war. If so, as so often before, we would not have learned from history.


Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the author most recently of two books about the Middle East: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis and The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. He is now working on a presidential biography of Jimmy Carter.
Susan Goldmark is a former director of an international development bank.

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