Traditional warfare against ideologically-based insurgent groups has consistently shown to be a costly, bloody, and ultimately an ineffective tool. Whether it was Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, the usual rhetoric of the war being a quick and efficient one has proven to be a farce. The U.S. was bogged down in each of these countries for nearly a decade with little to show for it, as either the insurgent group remained intact or was replaced by a more powerful and extreme group. Yet, even with numerous historical examples pointing to the contrary, George Bush, John McCain, and other hawks have argued that putting boots on the ground is the most effective tool to combat ISIS and bring stability to the Middle East.
However, what these politicians have yet to realize is that investing in military might and money does not necessarily solve a crisis. ISIS thrives off its rhetoric against the West, which means any intervention will likely make its propaganda more compelling. Numerous new recruits, who would feel as if the U.S. is a foreign invading power, would likely flood ISIS’s ranks. As a result, the operation is likely to escalate, leading to the need for more American troops and money, and entrenching the U.S. in the region for an extended period of time. In order to successfully eliminate ISIS, the U.S. will have to be entangled in extrajudicial killings and other illegal activities, factors that exacerbate terrorism, not stem it. A conventional war with ground troops will take several years to complete.
However, if ISIS is completely eliminated in eight to ten years then it might be worth it, right? The Bush administration employed this same rhetoric to justify invading Iraq under the faulty premise of eliminating al-Qaeda and securing peace and stability in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq actually gave way to the formation of Al Qaeda-Iraq, and when it was weakened, new insurgent groups in Khorasan and ISIS emerged to take its place.
Even if every ISIS terrorist was eliminated in Iraq and Syria, it would mean little as long as the conflict in Syria continues and minority voices are marginalized in both states. Disenfranchised members of the community could potentially create and support another group, which would again pose a threat to the stability of the region. Conservative hawks need to engage in some critical introspection and truly consider whether a military operation can truly be as simple and successful as they say.
Thus, we support the current U.S. position of pushing governments in Iraq and Syria to be more inclusive toward discriminated groups and attempting to quell sectarian tensions in their respective countries.
However, we also believe that America has an obligation to begin changing a major element of its foreign policy in the region. While the U.S. claims that the political voice of all members must be respected, it is partially at fault by stifling the democratic precedent that is being established in these countries. The U.S. must allow parties that are democratically elected by the people to remain in power and should actively support them, whether that be backing the mandate handed to Morsi in Egypt or accepting that Maliki lost the 2010 election and allowing the popularly elected leader to take power, even if it hinders American interests in the short-run.
Until the people of a country feel that the political process is truly working and taking their voice into consideration, there is the possibility that they will be vulnerable to using violent means as an alternate way of garnering political power. Our strategy actually serves U.S. interests in the long run, as the establishment and support of a democratic precedent in the Middle East will actually bring order and stability to the region. Concerns of the rise of extremism would be quelled should the US support legitimate governments that work for the people and uphold liberties including: religious freedom, fair political participation and values of pluralism.
By handing the responsibility and power to the people in these countries, we might finally be able to bring order to a region that has long deserved it. If that happens, then U.S. security concerns in the Middle East will be minimized, trading partnerships strengthened, and we might finally stop hearing about the need for “boots on the ground”.
The aforementioned solution is a long-term plan to prevent the rise of future extremist groups and stabilizing the region; however, there are also short-term policies we can implement to combat the ideological pull of ISIS. First, we must ensure that American Muslim youth are not susceptible to the pernicious messages of the group. We should lobby media outlets to not solely focus on the message of ISIS because it is slowly becoming the dominant discourse about Islam in the media. Instead, we should look to empower mainstream, moderate Muslim voices by giving them a larger platform to voice a more accurate and legitimate interpretation of Islam, directly undercutting ISIS’s ideology. Further, these leaders must inform their local communities through speeches and social media publications about the constant atrocities of ISIS.
There are also measures we can take to combat the spread of the ideology throughout the Middle East. Social media posts by major religious authorities can reach Muslims all over the world and help combat the barrage of daily posts published by ISIS. By providing Muslims in the region with a plethora of interpretations of Islam that denounce the wrongdoing of ISIS, it is likely that many will find it easier to combat the extremist message. Further, the American Muslim community can help instruct the U.S. on ways in which they can frame their operations to quell sectarian tensions. Currently, many Sunni Muslims believe that America is waging an ideological war against them; however, by carefully framing the operation as one against extremism, it is likely that we can change the narrative currently sold by ISIS. By demonstrating that ISIS poses more of a threat to Muslims and the stability of the region than the West, we can begin to ally with local actors and eventually undermine the entire ideology of ISIS.