What to Do About ISIS? Introducing a New Atlantic Project

Shiiite fighters in Iraq battle Islamic State militants. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Fifty years ago, America’s escalating war in Vietnam came under a degree of scrutiny it had long escaped. In February of 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s administration launched “Operation Rolling Thunder”—a bombing campaign against North Vietnam, designed to compel the communists in Hanoi to stop sponsoring the Vietcong insurgency in the South. The U.S. State Department promptly issued a white paper defending its use of air power to save South Vietnam from a “new kind of war”—a “brutal campaign of terror and armed attack” nurtured by a malicious state. This earned a rebuttal from the investigative journalist I.F. Stone, who used the State Department’s own data to demonstrate that the Vietcong was actually receiving little material support from the North, and to argue that the U.S. government, in its rush to rally the American public for battle, was obscuring a key fact: The conflict in South Vietnam was not the product of an unprecedented form of aggression by the North Vietnamese, but rather a genuine civil war.

The contours of the coming debate had been sketched out, to be filled in just weeks later at the University of Michigan during the country’s first “teach-in.” More than 3,000 students and faculty gathered to protest America’s intensifying military involvement in Vietnam through lectures and policy discussions. Thousands of copies of the State Department’s white paper and Stone’s rebuttal were distributed. “We are searching for alternatives,” one organizer explained. “We want at least to stimulate people’s thinking, enabling them to develop positions.” Outside the all-night affair, a counter-demonstrator held a sign asking, “Will Vietnam = Munich?” He promised to register his disagreement with those who opposed the war not with violence or shouting, but by peppering the lecturing professors with questions. Dozens of universities soon staged their own teach-ins. The anti-war movement spread nationally, as the American war itself metastasized.

Today, in the fight against ISIS, we find ourselves at a similar juncture: The war seems of a new kind; the enemy uncommonly brutal; the military campaign against it limited, but potentially limitless. There are plenty of differences between the conflict in Vietnam and the battle against ISIS; among other things, communism has little in common with jihadism (though perhaps not as little as you may think), and North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War, whereas ISIS is affiliated with no other state or larger interstate struggle. But the task of understanding the nature of the adversary, the struggle in which that adversary is engaged, and the full spectrum of thinking on how to confront it is as urgent today as it was in 1965.

As Russia bombs ISIS (and other armed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) in Syria, and Iran-backed Shiite militias battle the Islamic State on the ground, the U.S. government is planning to move American ground troops closer to the frontlines in Iraq and Syria, amid frustration that the billions spent on U.S-led airstrikes against ISIS have resulted in little more than a stalemate. At the same time, the United States, Russia, Iran, and other powers are signaling tentative openness to a long-elusive diplomatic solution to the Syrian Civil War. (For more on who’s fighting whom, and how it’s going, check out Kathy Gilsinan’s guide to the Syrian conflict.)

So what’s the best way for the United States, and the world, to respond to ISIS? Channeling something of the spirit of that first teach-in in 1965, The Atlantic is launching a new project—“What to Do About ISIS?”—where we’ll regularly be asking experts to present their best ideas for how to counter the Islamic State, and then inviting others to interrogate those options and their feasibility. We’re interested in the practicalities and specifics of implementing policies and strategies in a messy world, not vague prescriptions or ideal solutions.

Graeme Wood actually got this conversation started back in March in his Atlantic cover story on ISIS’s religious convictions. Here’s what he suggested at the time:

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

In the inaugural essay for The Atlantic’s new project, David Ignatius of The Washington Post traces the long roots of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, drawing on years of reporting in both countries to chronicle America’s cascade of mistakes in the region, depict the “culture of death” into which the United States was initiated, and emphasize the need for persistent U.S. engagement in the region, especially with Iraq’s Sunnis. He suggests that major powers with a stake in defeating ISIS fully commit to a staged program of stabilization—a process that first empowers local actors militarily (in Iraq, standing up a Sunni tribal force; in Syria, fusing the moderate opposition with elements of the Syrian military; in both countries, establishing safe zones), and then politically (in Iraq, a new federalist system of government; in Syria, a post-Assad transition process).

Ignatius elaborates:

The story of ISIS teaches the same basic lesson that emerged from America’s other failures in the Middle East over the last decade: Attempts by the United States or Islamist rebels to topple authoritarian regimes—in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria—create power vacuums. This empty political space will be filled by extremists unless the United States and its allies build strong local forces that can suppress terrorist groups and warlords both. When the U.S. creates such local forces, it must be persistent. If it withdraws from these efforts, as America did in Iraq in 2011, it invites mayhem. Halfway American intervention has produced nothing but trouble. Rebels have gotten enough support to continue fighting, but not enough to win.

History teaches that such wars end through a combination of the exhaustion of local combatants and an agreement among major regional and international powers on a formula to curtail the fighting and rebuild some governance. Usually the settlement ratifies the informal cantonal boundaries that have emerged during the fighting, so that each sect has what amounts to a “safe zone” in a decentralized state that functions under the umbrella of the old nation. That’s what happened in Lebanon with the Taif Agreement in 1989, and it’s probably the best that can be hoped for in Iraq and Syria. To reduce human suffering on the way to such a new equilibrium, it’s important, where possible, to back moderate forces as they create the safe zones that will eventually form the pieces of the new federal state—and that provide platforms for attacking extremist groups. Middle Eastern wars rarely end with outright victory and permanent stability, so the word “settlement” may promise too much. At best, for many years, it may simply mean stable ceasefire lines, reduced bloodshed, fewer refugees, and less terrorism.

We hope you’ll follow the debate, and contribute to it by sending us your thoughts, reactions, and links to hello@theatlantic.com.