The Virtue of Subtlety: A U.S. Strategy Against the Islamic State
U.S. President Barack Obama said recently that he had no strategy as yet toward the Islamic State but that he would present a plan on Wednesday. It is important for a president to know when he has no strategy. It is not necessarily wise to announce it, as friends will be frightened and enemies delighted. A president must know what it is he does not know, and he should remain calm in pursuit of it, but there is no obligation to be honest about it.
This is particularly true because, in a certain sense, Obama has a strategy, though it is not necessarily one he likes. Strategy is something that emerges from reality, while tactics might be chosen. Given the situation, the United States has an unavoidable strategy. There are options and uncertainties for employing it. Let us consider some of the things that Obama does know.
The Formation of National Strategy
There are serious crises on the northern and southern edges of the Black Sea Basin. There is no crisis in the Black Sea itself, but it is surrounded by crises. The United States has been concerned about the status of Russia ever since U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The United States has been concerned about the Middle East since U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced the British to retreat from Suez in 1956. As a result, the United States inherited — or seized — the British position.
A national strategy emerges over the decades and centuries. It becomes a set of national interests into which a great deal has been invested, upon which a great deal depends and upon which many are counting. Presidents inherit national strategies, and they can modify them to some extent. But the idea that a president has the power to craft a new national strategy both overstates his power and understates the power of realities crafted by all those who came before him. We are all trapped in circumstances into which we were born and choices that were made for us. The United States has an inherent interest in Ukraine and in Syria-Iraq. Whether we should have that interest is an interesting philosophical question for a late-night discussion, followed by a sunrise when we return to reality. These places reflexively matter to the United States.
The American strategy is fixed: Allow powers in the region to compete and balance against each other. When that fails, intervene with as little force and risk as possible. For example, the conflict between Iran and Iraq canceled out two rising powers until the war ended. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to overturn the balance of power in the region. The result was Desert Storm.
This strategy provides a model. In the Syria-Iraq region, the initial strategy is to allow the regional powers to balance each other, while providing as little support as possible to maintain the balance of power. It is crucial to understand the balance of power in detail, and to understand what might undermine it, so that any force can be applied effectively. This is the tactical part, and it is the tactical part that can go wrong. The strategy has a logic of its own. Understanding what that strategy demands is the hard part. Some nations have lost their sovereignty by not understanding what strategy demands. France in 1940 comes to mind. For the United States, there is no threat to sovereignty, but that makes the process harder: Great powers can tend to be casual because the situation is not existential. This increases the cost of doing what is necessary.
The ground where we are talking about applying this model is Syria and Iraq. Both of these central governments have lost control of the country as a whole, but each remains a force. Both countries are divided by religion, and the religions are divided internally as well. In a sense the nations have ceased to exist, and the fragments they consisted of are now smaller but more complex entities.
The issue is whether the United States can live with this situation or whether it must reshape it. The immediate question is whether the United States has the power to reshape it and to what extent. The American interest turns on its ability to balance local forces. If that exists, the question is whether there is any other shape that can be achieved through American power that would be superior. From my point of view, there are many different shapes that can be imagined, but few that can be achieved. The American experience in Iraq highlighted the problems with counterinsurgency or being caught in a local civil war. The idea of major intervention assumes that this time it will be different. This fits one famous definition of insanity.
The Islamic State's Role
There is then the special case of the Islamic State. It is special because its emergence triggered the current crisis. It is special because the brutal murder of two prisoners on video showed a particular cruelty. And it is different because its ideology is similar to that of al Qaeda, which attacked the United States. It has excited particular American passions.
To counter this, I would argue that the uprising by Iraq's Sunni community was inevitable, with its marginalization by Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite regime in Baghdad. That it took this particularly virulent form is because the more conservative elements of the Sunni community were unable or unwilling to challenge al-Maliki. But the fragmentation of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions was well underway before the Islamic State, and jihadism was deeply embedded in the Sunni community a long time ago.
Moreover, although the Islamic State is brutal, its cruelty is not unique in the region. Syrian President Bashar al Assad and others may not have killed Americans or uploaded killings to YouTube, but their history of ghastly acts is comparable. Finally, the Islamic State — engaged in war with everyone around it — is much less dangerous to the United States than a small group with time on its hands, planning an attack. In any event, if the Islamic State did not exist, the threat to the United States from jihadist groups in Yemen or Libya or somewhere inside the United States would remain.
Because the Islamic State operates to some extent as a conventional military force, it is vulnerable to U.S. air power. The use of air power against conventional forces that lack anti-aircraft missiles is a useful gambit. It shows that the United States is doing something, while taking little risk, assuming that the Islamic State really does not have anti-aircraft missiles. But it accomplishes little. The Islamic State will disperse its forces, denying conventional aircraft a target. Attempting to defeat the Islamic State by distinguishing its supporters from other Sunni groups and killing them will founder at the first step. The problem of counterinsurgency is identifying the insurgent.
There is no reason not to bomb the Islamic State's forces and leaders. They certainly deserve it. But there should be no illusion that bombing them will force them to capitulate or mend their ways. They are now part of the fabric of the Sunni community, and only the Sunni community can root them out. Identifying Sunnis who are anti-Islamic State and supplying them with weapons is a much better idea. It is the balance-of-power strategy that the United States follows, but this approach doesn't have the dramatic satisfaction of blowing up the enemy. That satisfaction is not trivial, and the United States can certainly blow something up and call it the enemy, but it does not address the strategic problem.
In the first place, is it really a problem for the United States? The American interest is not stability but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralyzed so that no one who would threaten the United States emerges. The Islamic State had real successes at first, but the balance of power with the Kurds and Shia has limited its expansion, and tensions within the Sunni community diverted its attention. Certainly there is the danger of intercontinental terrorism, and U.S. intelligence should be active in identifying and destroying these threats. But the re-occupation of Iraq, or Iraq plus Syria, makes no sense. The United States does not have the force needed to occupy Iraq and Syria at the same time. The demographic imbalance between available forces and the local population makes that impossible.
The danger is that other Islamic State franchises might emerge in other countries. But the United States would not be able to block these threats as well as the other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia must cope with any internal threat it faces not because the United States is indifferent, but because the Saudis are much better at dealing with such threats. In the end, the same can be said for the Iranians.
Most important, it can also be said for the Turks. The Turks are emerging as a regional power. Their economy has grown dramatically in the past decade, their military is the largest in the region, and they are part of the Islamic world. Their government is Islamist but in no way similar to the Islamic State, which concerns Ankara. This is partly because of Ankara's fear that the jihadist group might spread to Turkey, but more so because its impact on Iraqi Kurdistan could affect Turkey's long-term energy plans.
Forming a New Balance in the Region
The United States cannot win the game of small mosaic tiles that is emerging in Syria and Iraq. An American intervention at this microscopic level can only fail. But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe that the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act in the margins, or even hinder the Americans.
The United States must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the United States, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.
It is impossible to forecast how the game is played out. What is important is that the game begins. The Turks do not trust the Iranians, and neither is comfortable with the Saudis. They will cooperate, compete, manipulate and betray, just as the United States or any country might do in such a circumstance. The point is that there is a tactic that will fail: American re-involvement. There is a tactic that will succeed: the United States making it clear that while it might aid the pacification in some way, the responsibility is on regional powers. The inevitable outcome will be a regional competition that the United States can manage far better than the current chaos.
Obama has sought volunteers from NATO for a coalition to fight the Islamic State. It is not clear why he thinks those NATO countries — with the exception of Turkey — will spend their national treasures and lives to contain the Islamic State, or why the Islamic State alone is the issue. The coalition that must form is not a coalition of the symbolic, but a coalition of the urgently involved. That coalition does not have to be recruited. In a real coalition, its members have no choice but to join. And whether they act together or in competition, they will have to act. And not acting will simply increase the risk to them.
U.S. strategy is sound. It is to allow the balance of power to play out, to come in only when it absolutely must — with overwhelming force, as in Kuwait — and to avoid intervention where it cannot succeed. The tactical application of strategy is the problem. In this case the tactic is not direct intervention by the United States, save as a satisfying gesture to avenge murdered Americans. But the solution rests in doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition.
Such an American strategy is not an avoidance of responsibility. It is the use of U.S. power to force a regional solution. Sometimes the best use of American power is to go to war. Far more often, the best use of U.S. power is to withhold it. The United States cannot evade responsibility in the region. But it is enormously unimaginative to assume that carrying out that responsibility is best achieved by direct intervention. Indirect intervention is frequently more efficient and more effective.