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What to Do About ISIS

It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

In this just-released Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum, I outline my view of what a real strategy designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS would look like. As you will see, I call for not only increasing the military effort but also doing more to train and mobilize Sunni tribes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, while extending our fight to the Assad regime in order to convince Sunnis to join the anti-ISIS campaign.

I also argue for preparing now to build a postwar order in both Syria and Iraq, unpalatable as the thought of “nation building” might be for some. It is hard to over-stress the importance of the latter point, because only by sketching out a hopeful future will the U.S. convince Syrians and Iraqis to risk their lives to fight ISIS. Declaring a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria would be an important first step in this regard because it would allow the Free Syrian Army to train and a free Syrian government to organize.

Sadly there is little sign so far that President Obama is willing to mount such a serious effort. But it is just possible that continuing outrage over ISIS beheading Americans could force his hand.

And for those who think that ISIS is deliberately trying to lure U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria: At the moment the desultory U.S. campaign is playing into their hands by allowing them to tell their followers that they have stood up to the Great Satan. A more effective U.S.-led campaign would not be so welcome to ISIS if it resulted in its dismemberment and defeat as previously happened to its forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq.



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3 Responses to “What to Do About ISIS”

  1. KEEFE GOLDFISHER says:

    This is not meant as a politically divisive kvetch, but please, Mr. Boot, explain why we should send American troops anywhere in the Middle East where Sharia is the law of the land, as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan? What is the overriding US interest served there by trying to aid ‘moderates’, as opposed to, say, bringing the Iranians to heel, which seems like a much more important task? I get the concept of pounding US enemies, preventing encroachment of hostile forces, helping where we can, protecting allies, the wages of the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on a SOFA with Iraq, the redline in Syria debacle, etc. Isn’t Iran much more pressing? Mr. Rubin’s recent remark about Iran controlling 4 Middle East capitols (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa) seems like it should be blaring in neon and repeated often, making Iran item one on the to-do list. What am I missing?

  2. MARC SALZBERGER says:

    Supposed ISIL used lethal injections, or the electric chair, and the US public were less outraged, would that weaker grounds for a muscular US intervention? Max Boot is right of course, our current limp military effort will achieve very little except demonstrate to ISIS and to militant Muslims that that US is afraid and they are on a roll. But should beheadings drive our foreign policy?

    What is at stake for the US, in that region, at this point? Suppose the current fighting continues for another decade or two. How serious a matter will that be? We had no influence in Syria to begin with. We did not have so much as diplomatic relations with Iraq from 1967 to 1984, and Baathist Iraq was not exactly our buddy thereafter. So what if we continue to be on the outs there?

    That an Islamist safe haven in Mesopotamia will mean new attacks on the US homeland is as fatuous as when that was argued to justify Afghanistan. There are plenty of safe havens outside that region, for Islamists to plot their attacks, from Pakistan to Libya to Somalia, etc.

    Granted, ISIS in unchallenged control of Syria and Iraq will make Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, uncomfortable, but that need not chagrin the US. More concerning would be the Caliphate reaching for the Arabian oil fields. But we could defend easily against that, given our air superiority and a battlefield of mostly desert.

    In short, now that Obama lost us Iraq, and refused to secure Syria and made ISIL possible, there is no good reason to spend more US lives and money in that region, least of all for token gestures. Let the Believers stew in their own juices for a while. Let’s wait until they’ve had their fill of fanatics and want what we have to offer.

  3. MANUEL LAZEROV says:

    Really, would buying oil from ISIS be worse than buying it from Syria or Iran, both arguably worse and more dangerous. The beheadings are but a provocation, not a strategic threat.

    What’s really remarkable here is the evident impotency of the Sunni Arabs, their poor training, the lack of trust in their own troops not to become infected by contact with ISIS, the unwillingness of the Arab citizens to send troops to fight fellow Sunnis.

    No wonder Obama is considering a tacit alliance with Iran. They matter, despicable that they are.




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