Too often in the United States—most especially since 9/11—we equate “doing something” with “doing something military.” George W. Bush gave a traumatized, near-paralyzed US public two options: we either go to war, or we let ‘em get away with it. Faced with that choice, it was hardly surprising that 88 percent or so of people in this country chose war.
But the reality is that when there are no military solutions—which is most of the time, for those who care to notice, including on September 12, 2001—the alternative is not nothing, but active non-military engagement. Diplomacy becomes even more important. President Obama has said it over and over again: there is no US military solution in Iraq or Syria. He’s right. And yet military actions—in coalitions, with local partners, counter-terrorism but not counter-insurgency—were pretty much all we heard in his speech last night.
Obama’s four-part strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS (which he persists in calling ISIL, referencing the Levant, the old French colonial term for Greater Syria or al-Shams) tilts strongly towards the military. First, airstrikes, in Syria as well as Iraq. Second, military support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground, including support to the “moderate” Syrian opposition who challenge ISIS. Third, counter-terrorism strategies to “cut off its funding, improve our intelligence, strengthen our defenses, counter its warped ideology and stem the flow of foreign fighters.” And fourth, the only one not solely or primarily military, humanitarian assistance.
What’s missing is a real focus, a real explanation to people in this country and to people and governments in the Middle East and around the world, on just what a political solution to the ISIS crisis would really require and what kind of diplomacy will be needed to get there.
President Obama should have spent his fifteen minutes of prime time tonight talking about diplomacy. Instead of a four-part mostly military plan, he should have outlined four key diplomatic moves.
First, recognize what it will take to change the political dynamics of sectarianism in Iraq. The new prime minister talks a good line about creating a more inclusive government—but he has yet to choose new ministers to run the military and the intelligence/security agencies. And those are the very forces, for years controlled by sectarian Shia officials accountable to US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responsible for most of the repression against Sunni Iraqis. That repression wasn’t small stuff, either. We’re talking widespread loss of jobs, attacks on communities, bombings, mass arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings against a huge swath of Sunni Iraqi society. Those are the people now backing ISIS, seeing it as the only force, however extreme and violent, capable and willing to challenge the sectarian government in Baghdad. And every time the United States drops another bomb, many in Iraq see it acting as the air force of the Kurds and the Shia against the Sunnis.