by John Christopher Story
The summer of 2014 has seen the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL, storm across large swaths of war-ravaged Syria and Iraq. The beheadings of three Westerners, as well as the undeniably potent concentrations of wealth and power rapidly acquired by the Islamic State, have once again prompted the national attention to shift to engagement in the region. As the public dialogue is concerned mostly with what to do about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it is equally important to understand the circumstances under which ISIS was allowed to proliferate to reach its current state of power and the contributions of American interventionist foreign policy to the crisis. As this is written, ISIS has reached a level of auto-sustainability and autonomy unseen previously in the war on terror and the United States has begun airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria on Islamic State targets.
While the beginning of United States’ intervention in the Middle East could be traced back to the CIA’s Operation TPA Ajax in the early 1950s, the United States’ affairs in the post-Gulf War time frame have not only failed to ameliorate security concerns but have also created them. Where the sustained presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in the early 90’s aimed to mitigate the tense relationship between the Gulf States and Iraq, it additionally inflamed domestic populations and anti-American sentiment soon became a driving force behind the proliferation of Al Qaeda and similar organizations. This is evidenced in Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” in 2002. In the post 9/11 era, invasions and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued to motivate many to take lethal actions against the West—some domestically as experienced in Great Britain and Spain, but much more in the areas of occupation. The occupations, then, have become self-defeating in that the original intent behind intervention was to reduce violence and support stability. The legacy of the most recent actions has proven to be just the opposite.
After nearly a decade and a half of constant United States military presence and intervention in the region, the Middle East has largely fallen into a relative state of perpetual unrest. As such, the initial rationale for intervention, that the U.S. must act militarily for the immediate safety of the homeland, must be reevaluated given the current state of affairs. The policy position of intervention that largely requires the U.S. to invade and occupy a foreign territory, eradicate a perceived threat, and hold out in wait that the situation will improve, has shown to be a failure in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Repeating the strategy as a solution to combat the growing ISIS threat could prove to yield similar ends.
As discussed, the regional instability that gave rise to ISIS is perhaps a remnant of U.S. presence. This should give pause to the proponents of no-holds-bar interventionism, but should also contribute a unfamiliar dynamic to much of the libertarian ideology of non-interventionism. Considering the notion that U.S. intervention is to blame or at least contributed to the current situation, could it also be suggested that the United States, then, is partially at fault for the rise of ISIS in the regional context and thus has a precedent to intervene? Perhaps much of the emerging strife would have been unavoidable as the internet and social media enabled the Arab Spring movement by connecting would-be political dissidents across nations and inspiring others to act politically where they otherwise would not have. Regardless, it is both irresponsible and dangerous to ignore the contributions of past American intervention to the crisis.
As further intervention has the potential to perpetuate the cyclical nature of the United States’ security concerns in the region, and failing to intervene may prove to bare intolerable consequences, both economically and defensively, it can be asserted that previous responses to security dilemmas have left the U.S. with no option that would produce a decidedly better outcome.
The past decade of intervention has borne many ills domestically as well. The Patriot Act, increased responsibilities of the Transportation Security Administration, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the recently-revealed surveillance program carried out by the National Security Agency have both been in response to the perception of a “terrorist” threat and eroded personal liberty in some form. Domestic programs also have a cyclical nature. Much of the public support of these domestic programs uses the fact that there has not been another significant attack as evidence that said programs are effective and should remain in place. Conversely, an attack would also likely prompt a public response advocating for domestic operations to continue and perhaps increase in size and scope.
President Obama’s address to the nation in mid-September indicated that in spite of previous rhetoric condemning the Bush administration’s actions in the region, his administration would act in similar fashion. With the success of airstrikes in Iraq, the administration will seek to include targets in Syria in the near future. Given that Syria’s civil war and the dissolution of governmental competence in Iraq facilitated the rise of ISIS, the end state goal of airstrikes should be questioned. Though operational advantages are being denied to ISIS through aerial targeting, infrastructure critical to the future stability of both Iraq and Syria is consequently being destroyed. A successful strike may often mean the production of adverse outcomes that prompt a continuation or an increase in aid to the region, for both military and economic purposes, for an indefinite amount of time.
Also, from a military perspective, air power cannot resolve the insurgent-like tactics of most state actors. Mark Clodfelter and other observers of strategy have long studied this, and sustained operations at some point require a ground-oriented approach to establish successful gains strategically. The United States then has three options from this point post-airstrike: 1) An overt effort using some component of U.S. forces, 2) Funding militias in the area to advance strategic objectives, or 3) To withdraw from the situation amidst continuing violence and perhaps witness a return to regional prominence by ISIS after the strikes have ceased.
The first option, the overt use U.S. forces to advance strategically, is not likely to occur due to electoral consequences in a contentious political climate that could further corner an increasingly unpopular administration. Arming local entities that could be at odds with ISIS for any number of reasons would require funding and supporting nascent martial organizations to fight another, perhaps very similar organization. History has shown repeatedly that such actions have far-reaching and unforeseen ill effects that will likely require future involvement. Withdrawal offers an alternative, but essentially guarantees that ISIS will continue to proliferate and with a new found incentive to engage the United States in the future while absorbing large swaths of the U.S. funded Iraqi arsenal.
To be sure, the ill effects of intervention have left the United States with no viable options that can be expected to produce a safer future for the country and its citizens both at home and abroad. No proposed solution to the current situation in the Middle East would afford the country the opportunity to pursue a coherent foreign policy agenda involving less interventionist actions, all but guaranteeing that American resources, both in terms of human capital and wealth, will continue to flow into the region indefinitely.