President Obama has been excoriated for declaring that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for effectively confronting the Islamic State group. But if Obama rushed to confront it, what would he be ignoring?
First, experience. After Sept. 11 that sort of “fire, ready, aim” approach led President Bush to order a ground war in Iraq without sufficient troops to control the country, without a true grasp of Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni sectarian dynamics and without any realization that, in destroying the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Sunni Baathist regime in Iraq, we were destroying both of Iran’s mortal enemies and thereby opening the way for a vast expansion of Iran’s influence.
We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after Sept. 11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later.
There are no words to describe the vileness of the video beheadings of two U.S. journalists by the Islamic State, but I have no doubt that they’re meant to get us to overreact and rush off again without a strategy. The Islamic State is awful, but it is not a threat to America’s homeland.
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Second, the context. To defeat the Islamic State, you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region (Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites).
When you have a region beset by that many civil wars at once, it means there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.
The Islamic State emerged as an extreme expression of resentment by one side: Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian Alawite/Shiite regime in Damascus. That is why Obama keeps insisting that the United States’ military intervention must be accompanied, for starters, by Iraqis producing a national unity government – of mainstream Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – so our use of force supports pluralism and power-sharing, not just Shiite power.
But power-sharing doesn’t come easy in a region where kinship and sectarian loyalties overwhelm any sense of shared citizenship. Without it, though, the dominant philosophy is either: “I am strong, why should I compromise?” or “I am weak, how can I compromise?”
Third, our allies are not fully allies: While the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti governments are pro-American, wealthy Sunni individuals, mosques and charities in these countries are huge sources of funds, and fighters, for the Islamic State.
I’m all-in on destroying the Islamic State. I support using U.S. airpower and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate the Islamic State more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of an awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist with the New York Times News Service.