After the terrible events of Friday night in Paris, calls for the military defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are arising not just from French President François Hollande but also from American politicians and commentators. ISIL has made itself the enemy of mankind — a designation that was long used to describe pirates and, more recently, genocidal regimes. Such an enemy can be lawfully attacked by whoever has the means.
The United States certainly has the means. It is, of course, already militarily engaged in what has so far been largely an air campaign. Defeating ISIL, however, will require more. The question is whether the group’s attacks against innocent civilians in Egypt, Lebanon and France are grounds for an American commitment to full-scale war.
Though legally recognized by no one, ISIL is effectively a hostile state. It controls significant territory, administers law in the areas under its control and pursues a foreign policy of aggression. The natural reaction to a hostile state is to seek its defeat. However, it makes little sense to go to war if we have no idea what victory would entail. A war must be fought for something more than the defeat of the enemy. Unless the West has a plan for a post-ISIL Syria and Iraq, there is no sense in going to war, even if we can be confident of military victory.
Political conflict does not end with military victory; rather, it simply continues under new circumstances. One might have thought this the obvious lesson of America’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. Defeating Saddam Hussein’s military was easy, but trillions of dollars and thousands of lives later, we are still confronting the consequences of the political failures of victory. One of those consequences is ISIL. The first rule of military action is you shouldn’t even try to defeat what you are not prepared to govern — directly or indirectly. Defeating a regime, in the absence of a political plan, simply creates chaos, out of which emerges exactly the sort of unintended consequences that we are confronting today in Iraq.
We have no idea what might follow from deploying American boots on the ground to defeat ISIL. The number of parties with interests in the area is dizzying, rendering impossible any effort to think through the possibilities. We don’t know what the Russians, Iranians, Saudis, Turks or Kurds would do, let alone the barely functioning governments of Syria and Iraq. Then there is Hezbollah, which means the Israelis too have an interest, as do all the various private militias that are already engaged in Syria and Iraq. The fight against ISIL is simultaneously a civil war, an international war, a proxy war, a sectarian war and a war among private militias.
In these circumstances, we can make no reasonable prediction whether the defeat of ISIL by U.S. forces would make things better or worse. Not only do we not know enough to predict now, but we also can never know enough, for all these parties will pursue their own interests as a military action proceeds. One thing we do know is that none of them have any interest in advancing U.S. or broader Western interests after the bombs stop falling.
Apart from our debacle in Iraq, we have other models of what the mismatch between military force and political ends can produce. Consider Israel’s relationship with Gaza since withdrawing settlements in 2005: a military blockade and endless cycles of intervention without any political resolution. In Syria do we want to constantly, as Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir put it in The Jerusalem Post, “mow the grass” as Israel does in Gaza? Or consider the Russian interventions in eastern Ukraine and Georgia: a steady state of violence and the threat of violence that destabilizes every move toward political settlement. Do we want to make Syria permanently ungovernable? In the postcolonial world, the “successful” use of asymmetrical military force may look no better than this.
If the pursuit of military victory is politically reckless, then what is to be done? Unfortunately, the answer is only more of what the West has already been doing. Make progress toward a political resolution in Syria, which would allow for more useful military action; limit ISIL’s effectiveness by cutting off its sources of funding and supplies; slow the entry of volunteers from the West; and support those local forces that are confronting ISIL. At home, we require heightened intelligence on security threats, more active intervention among disaffected communities and groups and affirmation of the values of the West’s political order. We cannot afford to lose the political battles at home, precisely because we cannot win the political battles abroad.
Terrorism must be treated as criminal act rather than as an act of war, even though ISIL certainly resembles an enemy state and even though it uses terrorism as an act of war. Unfortunately, the tools of policing will not be enough, just as they are not enough to protect Americans from the repeated actions of mass killers in our schools and workplaces. Here too, we will not solve the problem of violence until circumstances change in a way that will permit political progress. Of course, the causes of political irresolution are entirely different in the two cases, but the consequences of failed politics are not so dissimilar: innocent people dying in places that should be safe. We live in dangerous and threatening times.
The history of the United States since World War II is one long lesson in just how difficult it is to use military superiority in a politically effective way. There is no need to relearn this lesson the hard way, even as we grieve for the dead and injured in Paris.