The Islamic State’s advance in Iraq has forced the United States to look back on the dysfunctional romance we turned away from years ago. Now, we watch as the country teeters on the brink of implosion and wring our hands over what is to be done.
As always, there is a polarized debate to help us grapple with this thorny question. Some argue that whenever we intervene in a foreign country we make a great mess of things and should therefore stay out of it. Others say that whenever we sit idly by, conflicts escalate, and so we ought to get involved before that happens.
While it is convenient to latch on to one of these paradigms, it is by no means prudent. Both perspectives are culpable in the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (also ISIS or ISIL), and neither trumps flexibility nor sound judgment.
Jihadists profited immensely from American presence in Iraq. As occupiers, we essentially recruited on behalf of terrorist groups while propping up the divisive and thuggish Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister (good riddance). By the time we left, Iraq was fertile ground for radical takeover and sectarian strife. Absent of our military adventurism, Iraq would have been stable enough to repel ISIS, albeit most likely under the rule of a warlord.
The opposite was true in Syria, where our indecisiveness permitted this disease to spread. For some time, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad nurtured ISIS, allowing it to thrive and assist him in his fight against moderate rebels; he also hoped to force the world to pick sides between a murderous but controllable dictator and a fanatical terrorist organization. Now, he looks on with glee as the group’s black flags stream across Iraq, but turns to those approaching Damascus with a shiver.
To be fair, pre-emption as a war aim has been taboo since Iraq. Nevertheless, we should have aggressively intervened on behalf of moderate Syrian rebels when their imminent victory began to spoil. Instead, we vacillated between permissive and outright disingenuous, all but abandoning our promise to send weapons, and instead signing on to a now-discredited chemical weapons “deal.”
It was American inaction in Syria that allowed ISIS to fester, but American action in Iraq that laid the groundwork for the group’s conquests. Our foreign policy should not be based on this kind of reductionism. Instead, it should focus on the facts on the ground: ISIS is carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide, indoctrinating children in a murderous and hateful ideology, training and radicalizing Western nationals, destroying irreplaceable cultural treasures, imposing Sharia law on unwilling people, amassing an enormous war chest, and constructing a beachhead for global terror.
To this, the noninterventionist will remind us that the last time we intervened in this country—in a completely different context—it didn’t work out. We should, however, learn from our blunders in Iraq, not just brood over them. In particular, these include unilaterally invading with inadequate understanding of ethnic dynamics and without a clear plan to address regime change.
Calling for a U.S. ground invasion of Syria and Iraq would be, at this point, somewhat absurd. Nonetheless, a strategy of carrying out tactical airstrikes while waiting for the Kurds and an Iraqi government on life support to drive out ISIS—and, for that matter, strike at it from its Syrian power base—is inadequate.
A solution will not come easily, and I don’t claim to have the answers to many of the hard questions. There is a very real danger of mission creep and entanglement in another Middle Eastern fiasco. Dealing with ISIS in Syria also entails de facto aid for Assad, forcing the tortured question of regime change there. But ISIS’s vast resources, towering ambitions, organizational sophistication, and pattern of escalating atrocities demand a response. These are not ostracized jihadists running from cave to cave; ISIS collects taxes, sells oil, and functions as a legitimate state.
The last time we invaded Iraq was on false pretenses. We were told there were WMDs and, to disastrous results, took the government’s word for it. This time, however, we can see with our own eyes the strategic and moral imperative to act decisively against the Islamic State and its malignant ideology.
We must be wiser this time around, learning from successes like our support of the Afghani uprising against the Taliban. There are also failures to remember, among them the power vacuum we created in Iraq. That this entails a principled commitment to a truly daunting task should not be a deterrent.