“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” – William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
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Republicans were berating Secretary of State John Kerry last week for calling the fight against ISIS a “counter-terrorism operation” rather than a “war.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News that the refusal to use the word war weakens the mission.
This pointless debate makes me wonder whether leaders of either party grasp the nature of the growing threat presented by militant Islamists. The misguided fight over what to call it is certainly not a hopeful sign.
Of course the word war has great political resonance. After 9/11, George W. Bush proclaimed a global war on terrorism (GWOT), a term closely bound up with the Iraq war. The Bush administration justified the Iraq invasion by citing supposed ties among Saddam Hussein, nuclear weapons, and al-Qaeda terrorists.
As we now know (and as was readily apparent before the war), Saddam no longer had a nuclear program nor any operative link to al-Qaeda. So the term GWOT became politically radioactive and was deep-sixed by the Obama administration. Needless to say, that impels Republicans to seek its resurrection.
But the use of the term war presents a misleading picture of how ISIS must be fought.
War fighting conveys the image of sovereign states sending armies or navies to confront each other. Think World Wars I and II. One side ultimately wins while the other side loses, or quits.
This is not the challenge President Obama faces now that he is (finally) confronting ISIS. The jihadi group is not going to invade America or Europe. Nor will (or should) U.S. combat troops confront ISIS on the ground in Iraq or Syria; that job must be done by Kurdish or Iraqi soldiers, or by the Syrian opposition – in the unlikely case that belated U.S. efforts can train up reliable units.
Most important, the fight cannot be won like a conventional war. Even thinking in such terms indicates a misunderstanding of what ISIS represents.
“ISIS . . . is a manifestation of a larger problem – the breakdown of the legal order that underpinned the (Mideast) region,” says Francis Ricciardone, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who now heads the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Until recently, he says, “There was an accountability of states . . . before the world, a degree of governance . . . under rules that were understood. Much of that is gone across the region.”
The Mideast is now marked by huge lawless areas from Syria and Iraq, to Libya, and parts of Tunisia and Algeria, where other Islamist terrorist groups are flourishing. ISIS’s territorial triumphs, and capture of sophisticated weapons from Iraqi bases, have inspired others, as has its destruction of the boundary between Syria and Iraq.
There can be no final defeat of ISIS until Mideast leaders address the conditions that led to the region’s current breakdown, the misgovernance, corruption, and brutality that have enraged a huge segment of Muslim youth. ISIS “did not come out of thin air. It is a result of serious grievances in the region,” I was told by phone from Amman by Marwan Muasher, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan, who has written extensively on the need for Arab political reform.
“The Arab uprising was the biggest wake-up call of all, but it has not been internalized,” says Muasher, now a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Unless Arab leaders understand that business as usual is not sustainable, you might be able to defeat this version of (ISIS), but similar groups will emerge out of regional chaos.”
Muasher notes that ISIS’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, was crushed by U.S. “surge” forces in 2007, but regrouped in the lawless environs of Syria during its civil war.
Since the United States can’t remake the Mideast – as Bush and Obama have learned to their sorrow – the Islamist terrorist cancer won’t be eradicated in the near term. That does not mean, however, that the United States should remain passive as terrorist groups multiply and network. Obama finally seems to understand that they must be disrupted, even if “defeat” can’t be achieved.
However, if the term war overstates the possibilities, counterterrorism operation understates the problem. The fight against ISIS must be part of a comprehensive strategy that confronts Islamist terrorist networks worldwide – for the indefinite future.
While core al-Qaeda has been degraded, its ideology has inspired a growing number of interlinked offspring – in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. “In 2004, there were 21 total Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 18 countries,” according to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in an interview with the Breaking Defense website. “Today there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups . . . in 24 countries.” He added that “connective tissue” is developing among them.
Bottom line: The battle against ISIS won’t be a conventional war with great victories, but it must be part of a broad, ongoing struggle in an increasingly lawless world.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.