ISIS are bad guys, yes – but there are plenty of bad guys in the world. Why are we endangering our already tenuous standing, risking whatever prestige we have left in the Middle-East and the Arabian Peninsula, by engaging – and half-heartedly, at that – in a conflict that is as much sectarian as it is political and whose outcome, no matter what it will be, likely will be a no-win for the United States?
Four reasons variously are given to justify our engagement with ISIS:
1) ISIS engages in human rights violations and atrocities.
Yes, ISIS is barbaric, cruel and inhumane. But Boko Haram is equally so. Why are we not giving the Nigerian government the same kind of support against Boko Haram that we are giving Iraq and Syria against ISIS? And ISIS and Boko Haram are only the worst of many organized groups of torturers and murderers throughout the world.
Of course, ISIS’ barbarity has become a media sensation. ISIS beheads people on YouTube. Naturally we, the media audience, are more aghast at ISIS’s killing of American hostages than we were at the killing of Americans by Somali pirates or Algerian Islamists because ISIS’ hostages were beheaded on camera, because ISIS has made their atrocities into theater. But should our individual visceral reactions to ISIS’ video productions – exactly the reactions ISIS intends us to have – carry over into foreign policy? Should we be taking a stronger stand against those who violate human rights and commit atrocities with better video production values?
2) What happens in the Middle-East and the Arabian Peninsula is of vital importance to the United States. This is an arguable contention, but let us assume it is true.
By joining the anti-ISIS coalition, we find ourselves allied with Syria’s Assad (who not long ago we declared “must go”), with Iran, the regional Shiite rival of our long-standing Sunni ally, Saudi Arabia, and even with Hezbollah, whom we have been demonizing for years. ISIS probably will be defeated – eventually – but whether it is defeated, or whether it outlasts its so-far desultory opposition and carves out of portions of Iraq and Syria a viable Sunni state, the United States will depart the fray with its tail between its legs. If ISIS wins, we will be regarded as nothing more than a weak and ineffective sucker easily conned out of money and weapons. If ISIS is defeated, Iran will be the victor, not the United States, and we will be asked politely, or not so politely, to get the hell out.
Surely, it would be better for the United States to stay out of the fray until it is all over, until the dust settles. Whatever happens with ISIS, it likely will not be a good thing for our foreign policy but, at least, once it is over we will know who the winners and losers are and who we will be dealing with. The obvious strategy, with the Middle-East, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and the Maghreb in a state of political flux, should be to remain above sectarian and political squabbles whose outcome we have no way of foreseeing.
3) If ISIS is not defeated, ISIS terrorists will come and endanger the United States.
Quite the opposite is true. If ISIS is defeated, thousands of foreign fighters, angry and humiliated, will return home – to Europe mainly, but to the United States, as well – to wreak havoc there. If ISIS wins – if ISIS does establish its caliphate in northwestern Iraq and Syria – its continuing aggressiveness, military and terroristic, certainly will continue to endanger other countries in the region, but its fanaticism will be less likely to spill over into non-Islamic countries.
4) We have a mutual defense treaty with Iraq.
This treaty expired in 2011.
If United States policy were that ISIS is an evil that must be eliminated, then the imperative would imply “at all costs,” including the application of whatever military force is necessary. Instead, United States policy is to provide tepid aid to an anti-ISIS coalition, being careful not to empower Shia extremists, not to antagonize our Sunni allies, not to inflict civilian casualties, not to upset the American electorate, etc. That policy is just as stupid and short-sighted as would be a determined American offensive against ISIS – and it doesn’t have the one advantage that an all-out American offensive would have. All-out war against ISIS would show that, stupid and short-sighted though we may be, at least we are not the flustered, indecisive and easily manipulated goofus that we appear to be today.