I dearly wish that ISIS will be contained and then defeated by the many countries and armed groups who say they are committed to achieving that goal.
From the evidence to date, it is hard to be confident that the American-led coalition under construction will be the effective vehicle to do that, which is a very uncomfortable feeling.
Here are some key reasons why. We have decades of experience in the Middle East with initiatives of various sorts (promoting democracy and human rights, expanding free markets, and so on) that failed because they were unilaterally conceived in the West in panic, and announced to the region by the United States. Only then were the Middle Eastern central to progress identified and engaged. Announcing a coalition before its members are on board is an amateurish way of operating, because it makes the local players – Arab governments of already mixed legitimacy in this case – look like hapless fools who snap to attention when an American gives the order.
المشاركون باجتماع جدة أعلنوا التزامهم المشترك للوقوف صفا واحدا ضد تهديد "الإرهاب" (رويترز)
Washington is correct to say that a combination of effective local military action and inclusive domestic political systems are required for progress in destroying ISIS, in Iraq especially. I lack confidence in this aspect of the American approach because it is foolhardy to expect that such important requirements can be forged quickly and in the heat of battle – after the U.S. has just spent a full decade and trillions of dollars in Iraq trying but failing to achieve precisely those two important goals. We can even see some counterproductive consequences of the U.S. legacy, such as rampaging ISIS troops taking from the retreating Iraqi security forces the fine arms and equipment that Washington had provided.
My confidence in the success of the coalition being assembled to fight ISIS drops sharply when I hear President Barack Obama cite Yemen and Somalia as examples of how this war will be waged. Yemen and Somalia are modern catastrophes of state-building and foreign intervention, including most recently the U.S. assassination campaigns carried out by drones that are supposed to diminish and degrade Al-Qaeda-related groups there. Yet somehow those groups keep expanding and they have spread into half a dozen other countries in the region. No wonder, then, that resolve among regional players to do this Washington’s way is erratic at best. Someone should tell the American president that Yemen and Somalia are political nightmares to be avoided at all costs, not replicate or tout.
Naming retired Marine General John Allen to coordinate the anti- ISIS coalition also raises questions anchored in real experiences. My concerns are that the areas of Allen’s expertise and experience in recent years raise many doubts about American efficacy in the Arab-Asian region, instead of inspiring confidence. He oversaw the war in Afghanistan, worked closely with Iraqis in Anbar Province, was deputy commander of all U.S. military operations in the Central Command region, and worked with Secretary of State John Kerry on the security training and coordination side of the recently failed, American-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It’s hard to think of a more depressing combination of American failures in the military-political realm in this region than those four episodes in which Allen was a central actor. I hope he was only following orders. His playbook today is to do exactly the opposite of everything he did during the past 10 years, which would inspire some confidence in chances of success.
The Americans’ mixing of emotional remembrances of the 9/11 attacks this week with the current mission to defeat ISIS in Syria- Iraq is factually incorrect and unnecessary, and probably will be counterproductive. It will detract from an accurate analysis of what ISIS represents and how it came to be, and therefore will induce exaggerated emotional reactions, ideologically charged jingoism, and mostly military-based counterterrorism policies that are not suited to the real threat.
American foreign policy since 2001 has helped to expand the threat of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and dozens of similar groups, rather than defeat them. Framing the attack on ISIS in Syria- Iraq through the lens of 9/11 will only perpetuate this problem.
The Arab and Turkish allies being herded into the coalition do not inspire a great deal of enthusiasm or confidence, I am sad to say – genuinely sad, because only dynamic and effective local action will defeat ISIS and other dangerous dimensions of our societies. Kerry looks less like the maestro of a united orchestra and more like a strong-willed sheriff assembling a halfhearted posse of scared locals to chase a dangerous bad guy.
Finally, Syria and its challenges is at the heart of the ISIS phenomenon. However, the coalition being assembled seems unclear about what to do about Syria. We can only hope that this will change.