Don’t Take the Bait, Overestimate the Enemy or Forget Politics: How to Deal with ISIS

This morning, Fareed Zakaria posted an exceptional op-ed in the Washington Post (which was also the lead in to Fareed Zakaria GPS), entitled, “Can we defeat the Islamic State?” It is an incredibly thoughtful piece that raises three important points:

First, he points out that we don’t always have to “take the bait” and that our response has basically been intentionally choreographed by ISIS. Referencing a similar strategy by Osama bin Laden, Zakaria quotes him:

“All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda,” he said, “in order to make [American] generals race there.” – Osama bin Laden

If the purpose was to provoke the US, then ISIS is succeeding and we are complicit in their success. Zakaria agrees that we have to do something, but advocates caution:

“We have to act against this terror group. But let’s do it at a time and manner of our choosing, rather than jumping when it wants us to jump.”

It is troubling that some of our elected officials are chomping at the bit to put boots on the ground. Senator Lindsay Graham pulled out the fear card today on Fox news saying that if we don’t do something, ISIS will attack Americans here, a concept that has no basis in fact and is unsupported by intelligence.

“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.” – Senator Lindsay Graham

But overestimating ISIS’ capability and threat is Zakaria’s second point. One overestimation has to do with geography: as he notes, much of the land they allegedly occupy or is at least contested in those flashy maps we see on cable TV is vacant desert. But the other overstimation is even more important: ISIS is a separatist group, unlike Al Qaeda which had a pan-Islamic approach. Lots of people don’t like ISIS, and it has nothing to do with the U.S.:

While the Islamic State is much more sophisticated than al-Qaeda in its operations and technology, it has one major, inherent weakness. Al-Qaeda was an organization that was pan-Islamic, trying to appeal to all Muslims. This group is a distinctly sectarian organization. It is a successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was set up by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with an explicitly anti-Shiite mission. In fact, this is why al-Qaeda broke with Zarqawi, imploring him not to make fellow Muslims the enemy. The Islamic State is anti-Shiite as well as deeply hostile to Kurds, Christians and many other inhabitants of the Middle East. This means that it has large numbers of foes in the region who will fight against it, not because the United States wants them to but in their own interests.

Finally, he argues for a political and military solution, highlighting something you never hear from American political leaders:

Military action must be coupled with smart political strategy. The Islamic State is a direct outgrowth of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ruinous political decisions to disband the Iraqi army and “de-Baathify” its bureaucracy. The result was a disempowered, enraged (and armed) Sunni population that started an insurgency. Vice media’s recent documentary on the group interviewed some Iraqi Sunnis who said that, for all the chaos, they were happier under the Islamic State than under the “Shiite army,” which is how they referred to the Iraqi government. (emphasis added)

Zakaria offers an extremely smart, thoughtful analysis. We all feel a sick from the barbaric videos that ISIS has released showing the savage beheading of two American journalists and a British humanitarian worker. If anything demonstrates ISIS’s barbarism, and more importantly that they are terrorists who are not Islamic and have not established a state, it is those horrific videos.

Although visibly infuriated immediately after Jim Foley’s death, Obama demonstrated the kind of caution and thought that Zakaria smartly advocates for. But now, after the second American has been beheaded he is sucuumbing to pressure by those less thoughtful than him to engage in a war that has no good ending. Not even the one we seek, to destroy ISIS.

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