The attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) this month in Paris and Beirut and the bombing a Russian jetliner over Egypt last month undoubtedly require a vigorous response.
But any response fashioned without a deep understanding of how past policies have created the current conditions in the Middle East runs a huge risk of creating global violence for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.
ISIL has no capacity to invade the United States or Europe. But it can make life unpleasant by deploying true believers to set off bombs, fire guns and disperse biological and chemical weapons.
A smart response requires a thorough understanding of what motivates ISIL’s leaders, what draws some zealous young people to die for the cause and how to exploit ISIL’s internal theological contradictions to discredit its religious claims.
We can’t kill our way out of this problem, but that seems to be the approach favored by French President François Hollande. The presence of French or American troops fighting ISIL would just help ISIL recruiting by lending credence to its claims that Christians have launched a crusade against Islam.
Just as the costs of war continue for generations after the last person dies in combat, policy mistakes create problems that may fester for decades. As President Barack Obama said in Turkey last week at the G-20 summit:
It is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that [having U.S. troops engage ISIL in ground combat] would be a mistake. Because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.
The emerging caliphate in what we call Syria and Iraq would not exist but for a series of disastrous foreign policy mistakes by George W. Bush’s administration, especially its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He promised to listen to his generals and admirals but then created massive distrust among high level military officers, in part because he ignored what is known as the Powell Doctrine — after Gen. Colin Powell’s belief in using only overwhelming force — and fired Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, whose advice on how to invade Iraq and keep it secure we now know was spot on.
Instead, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney embraced the wishful thinking of right-wing ideologues they installed at the Pentagon. Civilians with no military experience or Middle East expertise — including Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and L. Paul Bremer III — believed that ousting Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussein would make democracy flower in the Middle East.
Though the best form of government, democracy cannot be imposed from outside. As we have seen in Haiti, Russia and other countries, it does not take root in soil barren of the right mix of political nutrients: a commitment to allow the state to have a monopoly on violence, experience with local self-governance, education, tolerance and, as Aristotle taught, acceptance that as different leaders are chosen, citizens will “rule and be ruled in turns.”
Iraq met none of these criteria, and U.S. leaders even made a bad situation worse. Bremer’s second act as the country’s proconsul was to disband the Iraqi military without regard to the loyalty or professionalism of its officer corps.
The American generals and colonels who expected to engage Iraqi army professional soldiers in restoring order were not even told of the decision, which put half a million well-trained soldiers out of work and desperately in need of a way to feed their families. The immediate result was chaos in Iraqi cities, followed by the creation of ISIL, with former army officers in key roles.
ISIL is riven by problems we can exploit, especially its self-declared role as enforcer of Islamic theological purity based on perverse interpretations of the Quran. In this, ISIL follows other religious extremists, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians and Hindus, in its selective interpretations of religious texts and its insistence that others yield to its beliefs or die.
Where in the Quran, for example, is the justification for the following words by ISIS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani about killing civilians?
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian or a Canadian or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.
Adnani wrote this in the ISIL magazine Dabiq, whose name refers to a Syrian city where ISIL teaches that the end of the world will soon begin, after an epic battle in which Muslims defeat Christians. Such apocalyptic fantasies help explain why ISIL killed Muslims in Beirut. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah is, to ISIL, composed of Shia apostates who must be destroyed.
Such attacks are the limit of ISIL’s power. It has no capacity to occupy one inch of Europe or America. It has only the power to harry with small-scale attacks, the kind of terrorist events that history has recorded for thousands of years and that are likely to go on centuries into the future.
We must decide if, like the Parisians sitting in their sidewalk cafes and filling concert halls, we will live without fear or we will succumb and send ground troops into combat — which would only encourage more suicide attacks.
We need to stop listening to the fearmongering narcissists who know as much about the Middle East as your average drunk in a bar. Donald Trump’s deep thoughts on ISIL include “these people are insane.” Dr. Ben Carson, who tries to hide his general ignorance about world affairs by talking in Palinesque platitudes, suggests that destroying oil fields is a smart way to “strangulate” ISIL.
The biggest and worst mistake the U.S. and Europe could make right now is to fuel fanaticism by sending ground troops to fight ISIL or adopting the proposal of Sen. Ted Cruz to bomb targets with little regard for the deaths of women and children, a proposal morally equal to ISIL’s justifications for killing civilians.
For years, a host of senior military officers have spoken wisely and been ignored. Most active duty members of the military oppose sending troops back to Iraq. We need to listen to their sage advice: no Western ground troops. Better to have Middle East soldiers on the ground fighting the real Muslim apostates, the ISIL supporters who desecrate Allah with evil acts committed in his name.