Last June, I participated in a National Journal symposium asking, "What Should the U.S. Do About ISIS?" After last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed responsibility, I went back and looked at what I wrote. My bottom line was this: The United States has a responsibility to its allies, but policymakers should understand that bringing military force to bear on the Islamic State will not alone resolve the problem. The phenomenon of Islamist extremism is first and foremost a political and theological challenge that Washington barely understands; this part of the fight is best left to Arabs and Muslims. Have a look at what I wrote. I believe it stands up pretty well. Feel free to let me know what you think.
The policy debate would be more productive if we asked ourselves what we should not do about ISIS. Having made the world safe for democracy in the 20th century, Americans are naturally disposed to want to meet great ideological challenges. But the struggle against ISIS is a political and theological fight that is largely beyond the United States. The group is successful at this moment because of a series of failures—of the Iraq project that began in 2003, of the Arab republics, of the Arab uprisings, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment with governance, of shortsighted policy in Libya—that have made its claims about authenticity, citizenship, and religion attractive to young men and women grappling with these failures. At the same time, there are millions of Arabs and Muslims who do not want to live in ISIS-land, and who have begun to respond to the threat that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi represents.
American policymakers should resist the temptation to step in and help. Washington may have good intentions in trying to provide coherence and platforms for the emerging counter-ISIS narrative, but an American role would only jeopardize the authenticity of these sentiments. In addition, Washington must resist the typical—and laudable—American inclination to try to resolve many of the problems that have led to the current environment in the Middle East. Washington has a responsibility to help its allies, but the stakes are so high for the local actors that U.S. efforts to influence the trajectory of politics in the region are unlikely to be successful.
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