Everything’s frozen. When you ask, “What is the appropriate U.S. response to ISIS?” half the people in Washington answer: “ George W. Bush broke Iraq and ISIS was born in the rubble. There would be no ISIS if it weren’t for him.” The other half answer: “When Barack Obama withdrew from Iraq, ISIS was born in the vacuum. There would be no ISIS without him.”
These are charges, not answers, and they are getting us nowhere. Bitterness and begging the question are keeping us from focusing on what is. We’re frozen in what was.
There’s plenty to learn and conclude from the past. Great books have been and will be written about the mistakes, poor thinking and dishonesty that accompanied the 2003 invasion and the 2011 withdrawal. But at a certain point you have to unhitch yourself from your predispositions and resentments and face what is happening now.
The White House is paralyzed, the president among the coldest of the frozen. He erects straw men, focuses on what he will not do, refuses to “play Whac A Mole,” waxes on about reading a book about the pains of the deployed. He’s showing how sensitive, layered and alive to moral complexity he is instead of, you know, leading. At the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, he airily and from a great height explained to the audience that ISIS exists within a historical context that includes the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow. “People committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Oh West, you big hypocrite. This is just the moment to dilate on Christendom’s sins, isn’t it? While Christians are being driven from the Mideast? He always says these things as if he’s the enlightened one facing the facts of the buried past instead of the cornered one defeated by complexity, hard calls and ambivalence.
He is lost. His policy is listlessness punctuated by occasional booms.
The public is agitated by the latest killing, of the Jordanian pilot burned alive. That murder may have changed some calculations. Jordan’s King Abdullah is said to have quoted Clint Eastwood during his recent Washington trip: “He mentioned ‘Unforgiven,’ ” a congressman said, without specifying which scene. Well, good.
Which returns us to the question of a plan, a way forward.
We know ISIS is increasingly hated by the civilized world, and by many nations in the Mideast. Each day that brings new word of their atrocities, not only to prisoners but to local, subjugated populations, adds to the anti-ISIS coalition. But we also know they will not be defeated or decisively set back from the air. They have to be removed from the areas they hold. They need to be fought with boots on the ground.
Some wisdom on that from two veteran players in U.S. foreign policy, former Secretary of State James Baker and the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass.
On “Face the Nation” Sunday, Mr. Baker said ground troops are necessary but must come from Arab and Muslim allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “My idea would be to go to the Turks, 60-year allies of the United States, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They have a good army. It’s an army that will fight. . . . They want to destroy ISIS. We want to destroy ISIS. There’s a convergence of interests here. Why don’t we get together and we say, look, we will supply the air, the logistics and the intelligence, you put the boots on the ground and go in there and do the job?”
I spoke to Mr. Baker at CBS before his appearance. He said the world is “coalescing,” and this is the time to move, with diplomacy and leadership.
So, a multinational Arab and Muslim military force to fight ISIS on the ground. Is this the right way to go?
Very much so, said Mr. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. ISIS, he told me this week, is “a network, a movement and an organization.” It poses a geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian threat to the world. It threatens Sunni regimes in the region—if it wins over their populations, “it turns every country into a potential failed state.”
ISIS “can disrupt oil-producing areas like Saudi Arabia. . . . It is inevitable that they will one day challenge the House of Saud” through terrorism or by attempting to rouse the population against it. “If you’re the Islamic State, you have to control the country that controls the two holiest sites in Islam,” Mecca and Medina, Mr. Haass added. America doesn’t worry about the threat to the oil supply because we are close to energy self-sufficiency, but “we are economically linked to the world, and much of the world is linked to Mideastern oil.”
Most famously, “any area controlled by ISIS is a humanitarian nightmare to Muslims not devout enough, to Shia, to Christians.”
There is the threat to American and Western security of returnees. “ISIS has the potential to produce graduates who come home, and to radicalize those who’ve never set foot in Syria. There is the returnee danger and the self-radicalization danger, as we saw recently in France.”
Right now what is important, Mr. Haass says, “is to break their momentum. The region and the world see them as gaining ground both literally and figuratively. This draws support from those around them. It’s important to break that, to allow those who are wavering to see that ISIS is not inevitable. If they are seen as inevitable it is self-fulfilling.”
What to do? Mr. Haass echoes Mr. Baker. “Attacking ISIS from the air is necessary but not sufficient. You need ground forces to seize areas ISIS holds. You need a ground partner.”
That partner should be “a multinational Arab-led expeditionary force—a force on the ground to take territory. It needs to be Arab and it needs to be Sunni, because you need to fight fire with fire.” It is crucial, he says, that Sunni Arab leaders demonstrate it is legitimate to stand up to ISIS.
Haass includes in a hypothetical force Jordan, the Saudis, the UAE, and “others—Egypt too. Even Turkey. . . . That’s what you need, politically as much as militarily. Unless that happens we don’t have a viable strategy.”
He agrees the U.S. should help with intelligence, training and special forces as well as air power. Also needed: “a digital strategy that stresses that ISIS’ behavior contravenes tenets of Islam and means misery for those they dominate.”
So—move to kill the Islamic State’s mystique. Give them a fight, make them the weak horse, and do everything to bring together the Sunni Arab world to do it.
Is this possible? Can it be done? Mr. Haass said it is “a long shot” but “not inconceivable.” Moreover, “it’s the conversation we should be having. We should make answering this question the priority.”
The U.S. would have to lead, push, press, promise and cajole. It would have to use diplomatic and financial muscle. But it would be doing so with allies increasingly alive to the threat ISIS constitutes not only to the world, but to them.
And it is a plan. Who has a better one?