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Defeating the Islamic State is Going To Be Kind of a Pain

After admitting he didn't have a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, President Obama may announce one this week. Thing is, there's no good one available.
Photo by Kevin Doheny

After President Barack Obama announced late last month that he essentially had no goddamn idea what to do about the Islamic State — "We don't have a strategy yet." — there was much hubbub, turmoil, and angst. Now, the White House is hinting they'll have scads of strategy on September 10, when Obama is set to give an address to the nation.

Who knows, maybe a newfound bucket of presidential strategy will make everything kosher. But the difference between merely having a malformed strategic vision and actually getting away with it entails a delicate balance of bluff and bullshit.


If folks took a break from blaming Obama and/or George W. Bush for everything going wrong in the Middle East today, they might realize that the West actually has (more or less) an idea of how to defeat the Islamic State based on what it finally figured out in the later phases of the Iraq war: The population must be protected, engaged, and involved so that they — in this case, local Sunni tribes — provide no base of support for militants. An effective counterinsurgency strategy must recognize that the object of the battle with insurgents isn't territory or geography or resources — it's the population itself.

Unfortunately, that is going to be astronomically more difficult to pull off today. Now that the US is out of Iraq in every major way (something that the anti-war movement can claim at least some of the credit for) and because America has become allergic to the idea of ground combat anywhere in the Middle East (something else the anti-war folks should take great pride in) the Obama administration has been presented with a hell of a conundrum.

Absent a major combat force in the Middle East, trying to confront the Islamic State is going to require a coalition effort. A massive coalition effort. An Aquaman-summoning-all-the-creatures-of-the-sea kind of coalition effort. Don't take my word for it — ask John Kerry.

And that's the rub. A hypothetical Islamic State-beating coalition would be full of people who are basically sworn enemies and will be until they draw their last breath.


An introduction and field guide to the fighting in Iraq. Read more here.

Radical Wahhabi Sunnis and apocalyptic Shia — by which I mean Saudi Arabia and the likes of al Qaeda on one side; Iran, Hezbollah, and folks like the Madhi Army on the other — have been locked in an increasingly violent struggle for regional dominance for years. And those are the two camps that would have to get on board to defeat the Islamic State. In addition, it's not like Iran will ever enjoy cooperating with the US.

This is all without factoring in Israel.

And so a coalition large and powerful enough to defeat the Islamic State will be a ramshackle disaster that's one major diplomatic incident away from bursting at the seams. The US is already in a bind, having to choose between practical necessity and the luxury of being morally fastidious — for example, deciding whether to arm the good kinds of Syrian rebels at the risk of arming the bad kind. Or deciding whether to work with the Egyptian military government, despite the fact that they rose to power in a coup.

Does the US want to help an organization with a proven appetite for the lives of US soldiers?

For US planners and politicians, this carries some very unpleasant consequences. In a way, it's a bit like Europe just before Adolf Hitler and Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Although the people who won World War II like to cast it as a clearcut proposition, there was actually something of a debate in Washington and London over backing Joseph Stalin versus backing Hitler.


The problem, many folks realized, is that if you join with a murderous, mustachioed totalitarian to defeat a murderous, mustachioed totalitarian, you end up joining with a murderous, mustachioed totalitarian — and subsidizing death camps.

Fortunately for the US and UK, geography happily coincided with the fact that one of those horrible totalitarian regimes was more horrifying than the other, and thus the alliance between FDR, Churchill, and "Uncle Joe" Stalin was born.

In the case of the Islamic State, the US has already encountered this dilemma in miniature. For example, US airstrikes to break their siege of the town of Amerli in northern Iraq ended up helping out a Shiite militia that has killed hundreds of US soldiers.

Complicating these calculations, al Qaeda affiliates in Syria like the al-Nusra front have been utilizing a savvy media strategy. In one of the stranger things to happen since 9/11, al Qaeda groups are now using the Islamic State as a foil to portray themselves as a much less batshit crazy alternative, thereby subtly courting a segment of the West.

For some, there is a temptation to let the heavily armed bad guys kill each other off in great numbers. Likewise, many US isolationists before WWII found the idea of Stalin and Hitler slaughtering each other pretty appealing. A more recent example of this approach was the "double containment" strategy the US pursued when it let Iran and Iraq tear each other apart during the bloody eight-year slog of the Iran-Iraq War.


The problem with letting various packs of bad guys slug it out — aside from effectively abandoning the civilians caught in the crossfire — is that sometimes they lose interest and stop killing each other. Which means you've just pushed the issue further down the pike, rather than addressing it early on. This is what happened after Iran and Iraq quit pounding on each other, and what led almost directly to the 1991 Gulf War.

Conversely, sometimes when bad guys fight to the death, one of the bastards ends up winning. This is what happened after WWII. Sure, the Nazis had been pounded flat, but the winning "Allies" ended up in an eyeball-to-eyeball staring contest that parked civilization on the edge of the abyss for half a century.

'The Islamic State.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Of course, all this global dithering may come to a screeching halt the next time the Islamic State does something strategically surprising, like taking Baghdad — which is still a slim possibility. These shocks, like the capture of Mosul in June, have already given birth to some strange strategic partnerships, like the Israeli offer to help "moderate Arab states fighting extremists."

But until that unifying event occurs, the Islamic State has pretty good odds of maintaining the initiative. It might have been supremely unhelpful for Obama to appear to be announcing that the US had no strategy for the situation in Iraq and Syria. But in his address later this week, it would be supremely truthful for him to say that, at least for now, there is no good strategy.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo US Army