What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
From Jeff’s 2007 cover story on how the remapping of the Middle East

Since we published the big piece from David Ignatius that primed our ongoing examination of the ISIS conundrum, two other pieces have entered the fold: Martha Crenshaw and Lisa Blaydes scrutinize Ignatius’s call for reconciliation among Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, while Frederic C. Hof emphasizes that “protecting civilians from Assad is the first step toward the settlement David Ignatius deems essential.” A few readers join in:

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate. The two actions that the U.S. must implement immediately to decisively influence a favorable outcome to the situation in the Middle East are:

1) We must make every anti-ISIS country and faction accept that they have to commit the vast majority of the ground troops needed to confront ISIS. It’s their neighborhood, not ours. Significant numbers of U.S. boots on the ground only produces negative results.

2) We must compel the current Iraqi Shia government to include the Iraqi Sunnis in the central government. This might save Iraq from eventual political disintegration and keep Iran’s influence to an acceptable minimum.

Another reader doesn’t think such Sunni-Shia integration is really possible or even preferable:

Here is the best alternative we have for solving the ISSI conundrum: Simply defend the remaining lands of the country that has been known as Iraq while ISIS consolidates its territorial gains, then broker some demilitarized zones and ersatz borders with neighboring countries.

Then the region would have what the British and French should have drawn up a century ago: a Sunni country (Islamic State or whatever), a Shiite country (Southeast Iraq or whatever) and ideally a Kurdish State, which may not be allowed officially by Turkey but may exist in a de facto semi-autonomous form for a few decades.

Not exactly what America regards as a win? Not an ego-booster for the country with more power and money than anyone else? Certainly not. But it is the logical end to what America’s idiotic invasion set in motion more than a decade ago. What reasonable observer ever thought it could turn out differently? If the U.S. destabilizes a country politically, militarily and economically, is there some magic way it quickly rights itself, peacefully or violently?

The country we call Iraq is a 20th Century fantasy, a naïve, arrogant concoction of Westerners. An arbitrary border drawn around separate lands inhabited by vastly different peoples. A mashup destined to be ruled by a succession of despots, left alone as long as they signed contracts with Western oil companies and mostly stayed inside their artificial borders. When the leading Western powers forcibly removed Iraq’s last dictator, the breakup of that nation was assured almost as soon as we pulled out our armies.

Any suggestion that the USA and its half-hearted allies respond to ISIS by temporarily driving it underground is, at best, another Western powers’ fantasy. If we foolishly expend more billions of dollars and thousands of America lives for a few years, we merely postpone the inevitable: a Sunni controlled region in a traditional Sunni land.

So if the endgame is a Sunni-led government, do Americans really care if it is a model democracy or a caliphate? We care only in the most abstracted sense—which is ultimately driven by our own values and not those of the locals.

Sure, we would feel bad about an ISIS government chopping off hands and heads, stoning adulterers and imposing severe dress codes on women. But remember the thing that has prevented America from so far using its full military might: to kill all the insurgents, an army must kill most of the innocent civilians nearby. Nobody wants to prevent women from wearing berkas by bombing them.

If ISIS gets to keep some territory, would a lot of inhabitants become refugees? Yes, but probably no more than those fleeing the dangers of perpetual combat in their homeland.

Think about what America fears most from ISIS. We are overwhelmingly concerned with ISIS jihadists sneaking around the USA and committing acts of violence. But what terrifies us most are the stateless terrorists, the ones with no homeland for us to counterstrike immediately. Well, if ISIS is a state, we have people and places to retaliate against. And their leaders will know we are really, really good at that.

Moreover, to give credit to the Sunnis of the region for being actual human beings, once they have a nation they can turn their attention to nation-building instead of nation-endangering. How is that not an acceptable outcome for the United States?