What to Do About ISIS? Introducing a New Atlantic Project

Shiiite fighters in Iraq battle Islamic State militants. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters)

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.