Isolationism is No Answer

This is a contribution to "Prospect Debate: Should We Fight ISIS?"

In his response to my article in the Winter issue, Jeff Faux calls for the United States to abandon the fight against ISIS and to withdraw from the Middle East. This is not a good idea.

ISIS and al-Qaeda, it should be unnecessary to say, represent real threats to the security of people around the world, including Americans. Neither terrorist group is going to stop killing infidels if the United States pulls out. Learning about their intentions is not difficult. They have made those intentions abundantly clear in public statements and videos and through the language of violence.

It is not true that all the efforts by the United States to defeat terrorism have failed and that the war against ISIS is “already lost,” as Faux claims. In fact, the measures we have taken against al-Qaeda have severely weakened it, and ISIS is now in retreat in its home territory in Syria and Iraq. In his wholesale condemnation of U.S. policy, Faux fails to make critical distinctions. The original war in Afghanistan after September 11 was fully justified, and it succeeded. What was not justified (and what we at the Prospect consistently opposed) was the Iraq War, which did have perverse consequences in destabilizing the region.

But we are now at a different moment, faced with new challenges. Two distinct, albeit overlapping, wars are taking place in Syria: the war between rebel groups and the Assad regime (which the regime now seems to be winning), and the war (extending into Iraq) in which allied forces are trying to roll back and destroy ISIS.

The United States cannot ignore the wider stakes in each conflict. The Syrian civil war has brought about four separate disasters: 1) the horrors being visited on the Syrian people; 2) the flood of immigrants into Europe; 3) the right-wing reaction in Europe being fed by that flood; and 4) the growth of ISIS, which has gone from murdering and enslaving members of religious minorities in the region to launching attacks in Paris and elsewhere.

Those attacks, as I wrote in the Prospect’s winter issue, pose a distinctly political danger. They are “a boon to the right in Europe and America,” while “the right’s indiscriminate threats against Muslims at home and abroad are a boon to the jihadists.” The two extremes feed off each. “During the next year, there is no greater challenge than stopping that spiral.”

The way to stop that spiral is for the United States and its allies to demonstrate—in months rather than years—that a disciplined and discriminating strategy can defeat ISIS and put the Syrian civil war on the path to a peace accord.

In the past year, U.S.-aided allies—mainly the Kurds in eastern Syria and Iraqi army in western Iraq—have recovered one-third of the territory that had been under the control of ISIS. The fall of Ramadi was a major step. Ignoring the destruction and carnage that ISIS itself caused, Faux attributes the devastation of Ramadi entirely to American airstrikes. If he had been writing during World War II, he could have made the same argument against attacking the Nazis (and, from the standpoint of religious minorities, the comparison of ISIS to the Nazis is a perfectly apt analogy).

With our support, the Kurds and Iraqis are continuing to advance against ISIS; the campaigns to retake Mosul and Raqqa have already begun. I wrote my article to encourage accelerating those efforts in the hope that their success could take the wind out of the belligerent, anti-Muslim policies in immigration and foreign affairs advocated by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and others on the right.

Faux not only rejects any U.S. effort to fight ISIS; he also questions whether the United States can secure help in that effort from Arab allies. In response to my statement that we should accept such offers from Arab states, Faux asks, “What offers?” To be specific, from the Saudis and the emirates—see “U.S. Arab allies pledge ground troops to battle Islamic State.” 

It’s interesting that Faux should be so dismissive of any effort to mobilize Arab allies against ISIS. That is the cornerstone of Bernie Sanders’s proposal in fighting ISIS, which the Vermont senator has said repeatedly would be his top foreign-policy priority. But Faux’s position is far to the left of Sanders as well as Clinton. He just wants the United States to give up and do nothing about ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any terrorist groups or other threats that emerge abroad.

In regard to Syria, Faux misrepresents a widely discussed idea for a settlement that I mentioned in my piece. He says I suggested Syria “be carved into three parts.” In fact, here is what I wrote: “The best hope now may be a federal system that would divide Syria into ‘cantons’ with substantial autonomy for groups like the Kurds.” Federalism is a common basis for resolving civil wars; it means devolving power downward to regional governments, not “carving up” a state. In December, when I wrote the article, there was reason to hope that a negotiated settlement of that kind might be possible. Now, with the Russians tilting the civil war in the regime’s favor, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for a balanced resolution.

Despite the direction events have taken since the Russian intervention, I don’t believe there were ever good prospects in Syria for a victory by “moderate” rebels against the Assad regime. Obama made the right decision to hold back from any substantial involvement in that conflict. Where he should have responded more quickly and forcefully was against the rise of ISIS.

In the fight against ISIS, there is a reasonable argument about how large a commitment of special forces and other troops the United States should make. We don’t want to field an occupying army, but neither can we avoid putting military resources into the conflict. There is also a reasonable argument to be made about how to limit civilian casualties in airstrikes, as the U.S. military has, in fact, been trying to do.  And, when the time comes, there will be a reasonable argument about responsibilities for postwar reconstruction in the areas of Syria and Iraq where ISIS has held power and been driven out.

But, for now, there is a fight to be won. As uncomfortable as the choices are, we cannot run away from the Middle East and hope that ISIS and other terrorist groups will just leave us alone. The world is too small, and the United States is too easily reachable from abroad.

One of the many ill effects of George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to go into Iraq is the encouragement it has given to isolationism on the left. Turning our backs on the world—or perhaps I should say “turning the other cheek” since Faux is recommending we run away even when Americans are attacked—is the wrong lesson to take from the disastrous decisions Bush made. The better lesson is to use American power judiciously but decisively when there are American and humanitarian interests at stake. In the fight against ISIS, that is exactly what we need to do.

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