I listen carefully when a senior American armed forces officer speaks about current events, because men and women in the military who put their lives on the line to fight wars initiated by their political leaders tend to be more sensible about the realities of the world than the politicians who send them to war. So I was intrigued to read a few days ago the assessment by the United States Army’s highest officer that the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will last “ten to twenty years”—and that the battle required military and non-military efforts.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, is a man who has spent much of the last twenty years killing people and blowing up societies in Asia, usually leaving behind wrecks that American warfare either created or simply exacerbated, in lands like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and now Syria. Yet his important statement that the solution to defeating the ISIS cannot happen entirely by military means deserves further consideration by American and Arab leaders.
Addressing both the military and non-military dimensions of ISIS is critical to shaping the policies of Arabs, foreign powers and others in the region who must work together to defeat it. The non-military dimensions are central to this challenge, because they are why thousands of individuals in many lands decide continuously to join or support ISIS. Though Gen. Odierno’s comments were heartening, like all other comments on this issue by senior Americans, including the president, they stop short of grasping a critical link: the relationship between the bad socio-economic and political conditions on the ground in Arab countries, and the impact of American and other Western powers’ policies that contributed to these conditions.
It is too late to change the impact of previous policies, such as all-out support for Arab dictators and excessive Western acquiescence to extremist positions by Israel or some Arab states that are long-standing allies of the United States, such as Egypt and some Gulf states. If one thing has been clarified since January 2011, it is that Arab government policies often differ widely from the sentiment of their own people. So it is not too late for Western powers to launch a new era of more political realism and sensitivity to the sentiments and rights of hundreds of millions of Arab citizens. They can do this by at least speaking out more forcefully about the domestic distortions and rights denials in Arab countries that generate mass despair, which often leads to support for extremist movements like IS.
Odierno said specifically that, “To defeat them is not just a military issue. It is an economic issue. It is a diplomatic issue. It is an issue of moderate versus extremists and it is about also, potentially, having the capability to root them out of the places they now hold in Iraq and Syria.”
He specifically emphasized the continued importance of a political solution, saying that, “We will never have peace in Iraq without a government that’s representative of all people in Iraq.”
“In my mind,” he said, “ISIS is a ten to twenty year problem, it’s not a two years problem. Now, I don’t know what level it will be a problem, but it’s a long-term problem. This movement is growing right now, and so I think it’s going to take us a bit longer than we originally thought.”
In fact, he should not be so uncertain about the level of the problem in the years ahead, because recent history confirms that the level will be directly proportional to the continuation of the political deficiencies in Arab societies. Those deficiencies are now very clear for all to see—if people really wish to see. ISIS and movements like it will be a problem as long as Arab societies are burdened with presidents for life, unrepresentative governments, part-time and low-intensity parliaments, large-scale corruption, excessive militarization, control of executive authority by security organizations, massive unemployment and underemployment, limited social protections, amateurish accountability mechanisms, controlled and constrained media, mediocre education systems, and a judiciary that is mostly an adjunct of military-managed executive authority.
This is a brief starter kit for issues to reform in the Arab world, or else radical and violent movements like ISIS will continue to flourish. Serious reforms in these areas will mean a wholesale transformation of autocratic, derelict systems into more participatory, productive ones. The United States and other foreign powers need to acknowledge how their policies contributed to allowing the Arab world to move into this mess, and start asking how they can engage with Arab societies more constructively. The faster and more concretely the United States and Arab states play their parts in addressing the non-military issues that promote ISIS, the faster that twenty-year horizon for destroying ISIS and everything it reflects will whittle down into a shorter time frame.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global