I dearly wish that the “Islamic State” (IS) will be contained and then defeated by the many countries and non-governmental armed groups who say they are committed to achieving that goal. From the evidence to date, it is hard to be confident that the American-led coalition under construction will be the effective vehicle to do that, which is a very uncomfortable feeling. Here are some key reasons why:
We have decades of experience in the Middle East in initiatives of various sorts (promote democracy and human rights, expand free markets, etc.) that failed because they were unilaterally conceived in the West in panic, and announced to the region by the United States — and only then were the actual Middle Eastern actors who were central to progress identified and engaged. Announcing a coalition before its members are on board is an amateurish way to operate, because it makes the local players — Arab governments of already mixed legitimacy in this case — look like hapless fools who snap to attention when an American gives the order.
Washington is correct to say that a combination of effective local military action and inclusive domestic political systems are required for progress in destroying IS, in Iraq especially. I lack confidence in this aspect of the American approach because it is foolhardy to expect that such important central requirements can be forged quickly and in the heat of battle — after the United States has just spent a full decade and trillions of dollars in Iraq trying but failing to achieve precisely those two important goals. Perhaps we can even see some counter-productive consequences of the US legacy, such as the rampaging IS troops taking from the retreating Iraqi security forces the fine arms and equipment that Washington had provided.
My confidence in the success of the coalition being assembled to fight IS drops sharply when I hear the American president cite Yemen and Somalia as examples of how this war will be waged. Yemen and Somalia are modern catastrophes of state-building and foreign intervention, including most recently the United States’ drone-based assassination campaigns that are supposed to diminish and degrade the Qaeda-related groups there. Yet somehow those killer groups keep expanding, not retreating, and they have spread into half a dozen other countries in the region. No wonder, then, that resolve among regional players to do this Washington’s way is erratic at best. Someone should tell the American president that Yemen and Somalia are political nightmares to be avoided at all costs, not replicated or touted.
Naming retired Marine General John Allen to coordinate the anti-IS coalition also raises questions anchored in real experiences. My concerns are that the areas of Gen. Allen’s expertise and experience in recent years raise many doubts about American efficacy in the Arab-Asian region, instead of inspiring confidence. He oversaw the war in Afghanistan, worked closely with Iraqis in Anbar Province, was deputy commander of all US military operations in the Central Command region, and worked with John Kerry on the security training and coordination side of the recently failed, American-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s hard to think of a more depressing combination of American serial failures in the military-political realm in this region than those four episodes where Gen. Allen was a central actor. I hope he was only following orders. His playbook today is to do exactly the opposite of everything he did during the past ten years, which would inspire some confidence in chances of success.
Americans’ mixing emotional remembrances of the 9/11 attacks this week (a legitimate and understandable human act) with the current mission to defeat IS in Syria-Iraq is factually incorrect and unnecessary, and probably will be counter-productive. It will detract from an accurate analysis of what IS represents and how it came to be, and therefore will induce exaggerated emotional reactions, ideologically charged jingoism, and mostly military-based counter-terrorism policies that are not suited to the real threat. American foreign policies since 2001 have helped to expand the threat of Al-Qaeda, IA and dozens of similar groups, rather than defeat them; framing the attack on IS in Syria-Iraq through the lens of 9/11 will only perpetuate this problem.
The Arab and Turkish allies being herded into the coalition do not inspire a great deal of enthusiasm or confidence, I am sad to say — genuinely sad, because only dynamic and effective local action will defeat IS and other deviant and dangerous dimensions of our societies. John Kerry looks less like the maestro of a united orchestra and more like a strong-willed sheriff assembling a half-hearted posse of scared locals to chase a dangerous bad guy.
Finally, Syria and its challenges is the heart of the IS phenomenon, and the coalition being assembled seems unclear about what to do about Syria.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global