President Barack Obama, who will unveil his strategy to confront the Islamic State (IS) on Wednesday, is charting the wrong course in the region, according to three Middle East analysts I spoke to recently.
The sum I take from their perspectives is that the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy to defeat IS militants. Instead the U.S. is repeating mistakes of the recent past. It is reinforcing postcolonial Arab nationalism, which has failed; it is throwing its high-tech arsenal against an ideological and political vision that can’t be defeated through arms alone; and it is engaging with lesser powers, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, whose influence over the situation is indirect and weak.
The fall of Arab nationalism
The rise of the IS is the most significant recent development in the region after a century of searching for stability and inspiration in the remnants of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, according to a foreign intelligence analyst in the region who requested anonymity to protect himself against reprisal.
After World War I, the crafters of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 cut the Ottoman Empire into jigsaw pieces that were then assigned to the victors, chiefly France and Britain. After World War II, the colonial powers were swept out by pan-Arab nationalist movements — represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the Hafez Assad clan in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This pan-Arab nationalism is now failing. Iraq and Syria have deteriorated in civil wars that are dragging bordering Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates into disorder. The IS represents a new and a serious attempt to unify the region in the wake of the failure of Arab nationalism. Call it suprastate radicalism.
This new politics has taken the form of takfiri jihadism, an ideology that is apocalyptic, premodern, nonrational, frenzied and nonnegotiable. The IS aims to sweep Mesopotamia and then the whole of the Abode of Islam (the ummah) of any dissenters. It has already started this campaign by seeking to eliminate minorities, including Alawites, Jews, Druze, Turkmens, Christians, Yazidis, Ismaili and Kurds. The next aim is to destroy Shia rivals, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shias in Iraq.
The U.S. attempt to bolster the teetering government in Baghdad and the Russian effort to bolster Damascus’ crumbling regime will both fail. The IS exists because pan-Arab nationalism has already failed in collapsing Iraq and Syria.
The effective way to reverse the success of the takfiri jihadists is to secure and build up the substate actors, such as the Sunni Arab clans and subclans of western Iraq, that have rejected the central governments in Damascus and Baghdad. It is especially important to empower the minority religions that are being driven out. Continuing to favor centralized control in Baghdad will only serve to undermine those who have the strength to resist the IS, such as the Kurds.
A return to premodern heroism
Another observer, Michael Vlahos of the Naval War College, argues that what can be seen in the IS militants is a premodern rage comparable to the heroic wrath of Homer’s Achilles.
The IS’ takfiri jihadists are making war on the very modernity that they believe has humiliated, ignored and bypassed them. The IS preaches a premodern version of heroism. It describes the vision of one man chosen by the gods who will dominate his enemies with anger and strength. The heroes of the IS demand single combat with the champions of the civilized states — personified, for example, by U.S. and British special forces who descend from stealthy helicopters in the Syrian desert.
No battlefield reversal, no series of airstrikes, no demonstration of U.S. firepower can defeat the Islamic State’s idea of itself as destiny.
Vlahos sees that young Sunni Muslim males are especially susceptible to the apocalyptic IS vision of dominating the legendary land of the Abode of Islam. This means that current U.S. policy is wrong to deny that the IS is a product of an interpretation of Islam. Its potency is that it is an inspirational interpretation of Islam that points to a premodern vision of the world, before the Ottomans, before the Crusades. It is a passionate, confessional, heretical interpretation of Islam that rejects anyone who does not obey the arbitrary rule of a supremely homicidal cult.
This premodern vision means that the U.S. cannot defeat the IS with drone airstrikes that, being the products of the rejected modernity, only feed the enraged imagination of the fighters.
It may also mean that using special forces in combat missions in the region feeds into the IS’ mythology because it is this combat that it preaches to its converts, like a revisiting of the legend of the Crusades.
No battlefield reversal, no series of airstrikes, no demonstration of U.S. firepower can defeat the IS’ idea of itself as destiny. Bombing IS positions around dams to destroy captured American vehicles is futile. In fact, the IS welcomes any kind of martyrdom because it validates takfiri jihadism’s ideology that this life is a struggle between the believer and the infidel.
Vlahos is ultimately pessimistic about the Middle East. He argues that the raw power of the vision of takfiri jihadism will pull down the capitals Damascus and Baghdad and then move on Amman and Riyadh. U.S. support and recruitment of Arab powers, especially the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, only fuels the IS the more. He is grim when he remarks that the kings, dictators and one-party authoritarians upon whom the U.S. depends as surrogates to stabilize Middle Eastern energy sources will ultimately be defeated.
Strategy of determinism
The Obama administration’s cause is further undermined by its becoming a laughingstock in the Gulf, according to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, after its failure to launch airstrikes last summer in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons attacks. He says the phrase “red line” is a term of mockery in Doha, Qatar, and opines that Obama is a determinist blinded to the true forces at work.
“Obama believes that history moves with intent, that the forces of reason, modernity and pluralism will inevitably prevail,” Hamid told me. He argues that Obama not only favors limited U.S. military power but also holds that sizable American military intervention will lead to poor outcomes.
Obama’s first pass of his thinking to combat the IS, at a press conference on Aug. 28, was unsatisfactory to everyone. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he infamously said. After the NATO meeting at Cardiff, Wales, on Sept. 5, he pivoted by claiming, “We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat” the IS. However, the Obama administration’s updated strategy is not about the use of U.S. power; rather, it is about building a coalition of nine other, significantly less powerful states. Hamid concludes that the White House’s strategy of reluctance, hesitation, even passivity — what has been described by critics as leading from behind — is a result of the president’s belief that history will ultimately go the correct way toward civilized pluralism and the rule of law without leadership. The use of the modifier “ultimately” to describe an unknown future is a telltale sign of such determinism.
Obama is wrong to assume that the region will eventually be pluralistic and peaceful rather than under the tyranny of a sadistic medieval caliphate and that regional governments will lead the way. What the U.S. is not ready to do is what very well might work: demote Baghdad and other colonial capitals and at the same time aggrandize and embolden all the substate clans and minorities, including the convenient Kurds, as interlocked buffers against the predatory Islamic State.