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History suggests the Islamic State could convince the US it deserves to exist

History suggests there are certain criteria that allow insurgents and revolutionaries, even ones with histories of brutal behavior, to engage with the United States.
June 29, 2016, 5:30pm
Soldados sirios queman una bandera de Estado islámico. (Imagen por Joseph Eid/Getty Images)

The idea that Washington would ever recognize the Islamic State (IS), which declared its Caliphate two years ago today, as a legitimate actor sounds fantastical at best, and nightmarish at worst. The group is largely isolated, having essentially declared war on the world, released videos of beheadings and other horrors, organized and taken credit for terrorist attacks around the globe, and disavowed negotiations with the international community.


But for all of the Islamic State's barbarism, history does not rule out the possibility of some sort of relationship with the West in general and the United States in particular. Over the past century, Washington has repeatedly engaged with revolutionary regimes and violent insurgents that US leaders had previously condemned, from the Castros in Cuba to the Islamic Republic of Iran to Sunni tribes in Iraq. The evolution of engagement with on four things: the group's prolonged survival, the emergence of an alternative threat, a shift toward moderation, and the group's takeover of a legitimate state.

The longer a radical enemy can endure, the better its odds of gaining recognition. It may take a decade — in 2011, ten years after the Afghanistan War began, Hillary Clinton, then the US Secretary of State, signaled a willingness to engage in peace negotiations with the Taliban — or it may take half a century. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba and quickly aligned the regime with the Soviet Union, establishing a Communist outpost on America's doorstep in the midst of the Cold War. The United States tried to topple him through an economic embargo, a disastrous invasion by Cuban expatriates at the Bay of Pigs, and assassination plots involving exploding seashells and poison pens. But Castro outlasted 10 US presidential administrations, and in 2014 Barack Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba and the reopening of the US embassy in Havana.

History suggests that if insurgents can run a country for a few years, no matter how brutal their behavior, they will be engaged by other states.

There's no guarantee that IS will last 50 years — or even 10. The group is in retreat, having lost almost a quarter of its territory in Iraq and Syria since January 2015, including most recently its former stronghold in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. It has also suffered the death of key commanders and falling recruitment levels. And even if IS does manage to continue holding territory, the United States would still need to develop a strategic interest in rapprochement in order for there to be any recognition.

New threats could potentially be the spark. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt overcame years of mutual hostility and recognized the Soviet Union because American interests had changed. At the time, the US was enduring the Great Depression and was desperate for any boost in trade, and FDR sought to check Japanese expansion in the Far East.


Similarly, during the 1960s, relations between the Soviet Union and China fell apart, giving Washington an opportunity to engage China and further drive the wedge between its Communist adversaries. After secret negotiations, President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and walked along the Great Wall, setting the stage for the establishment of full diplomatic relations six years later.

In order for the United States to align in any way with IS, a grave regional threat would almost certainly need to emerge that makes IS look like a lesser evil. That's an extremely tall order, but in the future, Russian or Chinese aggression could be the catalyst; when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States funneled weapons to Islamist Mujahadeen rebels. A new global Cold War, however, is not in the cards any time soon.

Related: Someone is spreading fake copies of the Islamic State's magazine

Perhaps most unimaginable of all, IS would also need to alter its despicable behavior and play by international rules. After coming to power, radical leaders often dream that global rebellion is imminent. But when those hopes aren't realized, the revolutionary state adapts to an established global system, and ends up behaving much like any other country. Soviet revolutionaries started out believing the workers of the world would rise up, but by the 1930s, they were playing the same global game of diplomacy as everyone else. China's Communist leaders followed a similar trajectory.

In the same vein, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the new theocratic regime tore up the international rulebook by overrunning the US embassy in Tehran and taking dozens of US diplomats hostage. But in the following decades, the new Iran started acting less like a radical religious state and more like a conventional regional power. Last year, Tehran reached a deal with a group of countries, including the United States, to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions.


Although US policy is to never negotiate with terrorists, Washington has often engaged with violent non-state groups like the Sunni tribes in Iraq, which the US recruited in 2006 to battle al-Qaeda as part of the Awakening movement. As long as the Islamic State is an active terrorist group, however, it will never be viewed as a legitimate actor. IS would need to transition from terrorism to peaceful politics, akin to the path of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which killed hundreds of British soldiers and civilians, but whose political wing, Sinn Féin, is now a recognized member of the Northern Ireland government.

The Islamic State shows no signs of moderating its behavior and giving up slavery, torture, and terrorism; to do so would effectively amount to questioning its self-identity. There is, however, one thing that could allow IS some legitimacy on the international stage without requiring many concessions: the takeover of an established country, such as Iraq or Syria. History suggests that if insurgents can run a country for a few years, no matter how brutal their behavior, they will eventually be engaged by other states. Simply announcing the creation of their own state, the Caliphate, won't cut it — unless many of the borders in the Middle East come crashing down and a host of new countries emerge from the ashes, a scenario that is not out of the question.

Related: Watch 'Fighting the Islamic State with Iraq's Golden Division: The Road to Fallujah'

As outlandish as it sounds, the Islamic State's scale of murder doesn't eliminate the possibility of future recognition. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people — far, far more than IS has killed — but the United States nevertheless fought alongside the Soviet Union in World War II, and Nixon visited Mao when it suited America's interests. Those mass killings, however, were not filmed and shown to the world.

Which is one reason there is no true historical parallel to the Islamic State. Its celebration of atrocities combined with its active dissemination of videos depicting murder and torture help ensure IS continues to be rightly seen as an unapproachable evil. And the group appears unlikely to fulfill the criteria that, over the past century, led many other terrorist organizations, revolutionaries, and rogue states to improved relations with the US.

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College and the author of the book The Right Way to Lose a War: America In an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.