Reporter's Notebook

The ISIS Conundrum
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Scroll down for a running conversation from readers and others on the best ideas for responding to ISIS, inspired by The Atlantic’s project “What to Do About ISIS?,” featuring essays from a variety of foreign policy experts. Email us at

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What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

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.

The Atlantic’s Jackie Lay / Institute for the Study of War

Nothing, a reader essentially says in response to the question posed by Uri:

It’s weird. EVERYTHING I read on the subject starts with the assumption that SOMETHING has to be done about ISIS, and that WE, America, must at least participate in that something. But why? ISIS is not a threat to the U.S., there’s no real compelling interest for U.S. in preserving the Iraqi regime—or even the Iraqi borders. There are regional actors that have a MUCH greater national interest in resisting or rolling up the Islamic State. Turkey, Saudi, Egypt, and Iran all have powerful militaries, and if they aren’t interested in fighting ISIS, I can see no reason why the U.S. should.  

Before we can have any kind of national conversation about WHAT to do about ISIS, we should first arrive at some kind of consensus about WHY we should do anything at all. Yes, they are a particularly bad bunch, but if that’s the basis for deciding who we should go to war against, we’re going to need a much bigger army.

Another reader provides a longer and more detailed response:

Realistically, there are no good options.

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.