Tackling the Islamic State Requires Realistic Goals

No-fly zones and ground invasions aren't the solution



After a bloody series of terrorist attacks, the natural impulse is to respond with overwhelming force to make sure they never happen again. The 9/11 carnage prompted a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to smash al Qaida, which carried out the attacks, and remove the Taliban, which furnished the plotters a safe refuge. 

The Paris attacks have spurred new calls for a change in U.S. strategy toward the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, which occupies large sections of Iraq and Syria. But this is not a new American war; it's one we have been pursuing since August 2014. And the group's newly demonstrated ability to slaughter people well beyond the Middle East does not mean the options for fighting it have improved. 

The two main ideas coming from presidential candidates are a no-fly zone, championed by Hillary Clinton and others, and a ground invasion, proposed by Jeb Bush and some of his GOP rivals. Neither was a good idea before Paris, and neither has improved with time. 

It's easy to forget that a no-fly zone would have little effect on the Islamic State, which has no air force. If anything, it would help the group. This step would affect only the Syrian government and its Russian ally in their fight against insurgents—which include the Islamic State. 

If our primary goal is to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, a no-fly zone has a certain logic. But if the highest priority is crippling the Islamic State, it would be self-defeating. It would also create the risk of shooting down a Russian military jet, sparking a showdown with a nuclear superpower. 

Toppling Assad would carry grave hazards. In 2013, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey warned, "Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists"—notably the Islamic State. 

A ground invasion would pose dangers that should be familiar by now. Among them: a huge escalation from our initial commitment, as happened in Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop presence ballooned from 5,200 in 2002 to 30,000 in 2008 to 100,000 in 2010. Getting into a ground war is a lot easier than winning one. U.S. troops can do more to inflame than to suppress enmity. 

The fantasy common among those seeking the White House is total victory. Bush vowed to build a coalition "to take out ISIS with overwhelming force." Clinton said her mission "is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS." Marco Rubio said, "When I am president, what I will do to defeat ISIL is very simple: whatever it takes." 

They imagine we can vanquish it as we did imperial Japan. But the Islamic State is not an established, unified nation-state. It's a diffuse entity that can migrate across borders and generate followers and affiliated groups in other places—as it has done already in Egypt and Libya. 

No country has more experience fighting vicious terrorists than Israel, which has learned that chasing total victory is like trying to drink the ocean dry. In 2006, it invaded Lebanon to go after Hezbollah, which was firing rockets into Israel. The stated goal was to "remove this threat once and for all." 

It didn't succeed. The outcome was a draw that only diminished the threat for a while. A few months ago, The New York Times reported that Israel was preparing "for what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah." Israel has had similar experiences against Hamas, invading Gaza three times in the past seven years but choosing not to attempt to dislodge the radical group from power. 

If Israel is unable or unwilling to eliminate such potent enemies on its borders, the U.S. is not likely to be able to obliterate the Islamic State. The better option is to use air power and other means to persistently punish, harass, disrupt and contain the group, ensuring it can't plan terrorism unimpeded. We might even want to look for ways to work with Russia and Iran. Over time, we can hope to curtail the danger. 

The Islamic State presents the sort of vexing challenge once referred to by the former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "If a problem has no solution," he said, "it may not be a problem but a fact—not to be solved but to be coped with over time." Sometimes the key to enhancing security is knowing what not to do.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. I don’t understand.

    If we don’t use our billions of dollars worth of stockpiled MIC-produced bullets and missiles to shoot at the Islamist groups which our Intelligence agencies funded and armed, then how will we make room for the next order of bullets and missiles and the next Islamist group?

    Why come you no got tattoo?

    1. What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

      1. I can say that again

    2. What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

  2. With all the hyperventilating coming from candidates AND media it’s not hard to see how we always get ourselves involved in misbegotten military excursions. From the ever present neocons, to their Democratic enablers like Panetta and Feinstein, we have become the carpenter who sees the nail as the solution to every problem.

    When they all bark this calls for American “leadership,” the rest of the world sees that as “America will do it.” And that is what they are waiting for. We always say we aren’t doing that anymore, hopefully this time we mean it.

  3. The Truth At Your Own Peril

    “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” -John 8:32

    Are those of The Left at Big Media getting scared of the truth regarding ISIS et al? Despite the brutal, violent attacks by Mohammedans against alleged apostates and us “infidels”, the powers that be, such as at Financial Times, deny their readerships even quoting the Mohammedans’own bible, the Koran. They state that to characterize Mohammedans by citing their own, published doctrine is unacceptable. Unacceptable to whom?

    See “CENSORSHIP, EVERYONE?” at ……..relations/ .

  4. Invasions and no fly zones imposed by western nations aren’t the amswer but what is? Antiinterventionists need to come up with concrete alternatives to offer the public, not just a steady stream of attacks on interventionist policy.

    Saying the ISIS situation is a fact that needs to be managed is all well and good but what the Hell does that really mean? If it means occasionally absorbing mass casualties from terrorist attacks, good luck selling that to the public of any nation.

    1. Also, I don’t think anyone here has a clear picture of what we are currently doing.

      I strongly suspect that Obama’s ROE makes very limited targets available, witness the fact that we finally struck at oil tanker trucks only last week.

      While I sympathize with the non-intervention crowd, I’ll also say if you do want to intervene, you’d better be doing something more than desultory PR bombing.

      1. Neutron warheads. Don’t they have an expiration date?

    2. Antiinterventionists need to come up with concrete alternatives to offer the public, not just a steady stream of attacks on interventionist policy.”

      The closest I can come up with is to drop regime change and support Assad, Iran, Kurds and Hezbollah in their fight against ISIS. I don’t see how Americans could stomach this as it flies in the face of the desires of America’s closest partners in the region, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Appeasing these powers, especially after Obama’s deal with Iran this summer, is important now, and I guess that accounts for America’s tacit support of ISIS.

      1. I agree with your comment, “The closest I can come up with is to drop regime change.” Period. If by support you mean give aid to assad, iran and hezbollah, I disagree, except for maybe the Kurds, I would carve out a chunk of iraq for them to call their own. They have the capabilities to fight iziz on their own. We need to get out of the mid east and warn them if they come here then we will turn their little plot of sand into glass.

  5. We cannot ‘fight ISIS’ because we will lose, and for all the reasons you mentioned. There have to be good guys in this war. People who believe in freedom and democracy and human rights. Let’s support them, or at least stop supporting the regimes that persecute them. If they don’t exist then we are just wasting our time, blood, and treasure.

  6. “No country has more experience fighting vicious terrorists than Israel, which has learned that chasing total victory is like trying to drink the ocean dry.”

    The problem with this comment is we have put restrictions on israel, kept the dogs tied up, per se. Give them the weapons they need and unleash the hounds. They won’t eradicate the ideology, but their “neighbors” will be afraid to mess with them.

    1. And Hezbollah and ISIS are different animals, occupying different territories under different logistical conditions.

    2. ” Give them the weapons they need and unleash the hounds. They won’t eradicate the ideology, but their “neighbors” will be afraid to mess with them.”

      What weapons do you suppose will accomplish this? By many accounts Israel has some 200 nuclear warheads, and much more conventional weaponry besides. Yet they’ve been unable to stop militias from launching hundreds of home made missiles into their territory. I’m not sure what restrictions you are referring to.

      1. I think we will end up with a More rubble, Less trouble policy, but not until something very bad happens.

        1. “I think we will end up with a More rubble, Less trouble policy, but not until something very bad happens.”

          How about an ISIS coup in Saudi Arabia? Gonna bomb the oil fields? Or just the tankers, roads and pipelines?

  7. Gov’t caused these problems by their interventions. Yet they want to sacrifice even more liberty on peoples behalf with the illusion it can keep them safe.

    The armchair douchebags call for more and more war, while real men and woman are sent to combat to fight for what they are told is protecting freedom. It is more about protecting their (politicians) pockets, their power, and keeping the war machine funded all while taking away liberty of the people.

    Of course, the politicians want folks to believe that folks should be weak and defenseless, so when some pieces of shit scum want to engage in terror attacks against peaceful people, that they should have no chance of defending themselves and their families as they wait for the police to save them. All because politicians believe only they and their families are worth protecting.

  8. This whole situation is surreal. The US contributed to the creation of ISIS (and anyone else who would fight Assad). Now that there is horrible blowback, they are scrambling to craft a coherent story out of this.

    Syria and Russia are fighting ISIS (and all the other CIA-funded resistance groups). If we want to defeat ISIS, we have to buck up and help them do it. Anything else is support ISIS.

    The madness never stops.

  9. I just had a thought. Maybe its dumb. Here goes:

    ISIS/AQ, etc all want a holy war with the West.

    You can’t imagine “leaving them alone” will work, as long as their goal is a holy war, because they can keep trying and trying and trying.

    Preventing them from doing this should be the prime goal.

    1. “ISIS/AQ, etc all want a holy war with the West.”

      No doubt some of them do want a holy war with the West, but not all of them. The people who perpetrated the attacks in Paris recently were not holy warriors, they were marginal young people who’d rarely if ever set foot in a mosque (Muslim temple). They were overheard shouting slogans during the attack. Not allah akbar (god is great), not “this is for Islam” or the Caliphate. They were heard shouting “This is for Syria!” You want others who don’t want a holy war with the West? How about the Sunni remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military? They are probably among ISIS’ most effective fighters. They are not particularly interested in religion and want to emerge from this conflict in one piece. There’s plenty of room for appeasing these elements of ISIS. It’s a strategy called “divide and conquer.”

  10. the smartest thing is stand back and watch the inevitable genocide from a safe distance. then when they’re done exterminating one another, start over.

    1. ISIS is not going to exterminate Russia.

  11. One thing that might help is US intelligence could stop sending the Islamic State weapons, equipment and supplies. Most informed citizens know by now that ISIS / ISIL is the US proxy for regime change in Syria. All the talk about helping the “moderate” rebels was just total nonsense for public consumption. In fact, the US government admitted as much when it stated that the US policy of training Syrian rebels spend many millions of dollars and had only 5 individuals to show for it. And did you catch the reports that when we bombed ISIS oil tanker trucks we first dropped leaflets warning of the impending bombing which came 45 minutes later. Would have been more appropriate if we warned the thousands of innocent women and children we bombed whose only crime was occupying a residence with a purported “high value target”.

  12. Maybe a good start would be to set up barber apprenticeships and schools? Could jump-start the local economy and improve employment chances.

    1. We need to issue credit cards to the radicals and include Victoria’s Secret and Cabela’s catalogs along with them. Let’s get them hooked on credit to the point where they’ll be too busy working to get out of debt to cause any trouble in the world.

      I demand Obama send C130’s laden with Visa and Mastercard reps/paratroopers into ISIS controlled territory now!

  13. Well, I guess the options are stand back and watch the genocide, or perpetrate it. We certainly have the means. Pick a village infested with ISIS fighters, drop about 30 MOAB bombs on it, photograph the rubble and then make leaflets that promise much more of the same if the shit stains our doorstep again. Then, when one of the idiots inevitably stains our steps, repeat 10 fold. Each time. Eventually, they’ll get the message, are completely wiped out, or decide to sell gravel on the international market instead. If you don’t have the stomach for Genghis Khan tactics, then your best option is to just watch. Pinpricks just piss everyone off.

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  15. I’d like to make a point directed to all those geniuses who say they sympathize with anti-interventionists (like me) but what is our Plan? What would we DO?

    e.g. mtrueman comments: “Antiinterventionists need to come up with concrete alternatives to offer the public, not just a steady stream of attacks on interventionist policy”

    The answer may well be Absolutely Nuthin War! Hyuh!
    The interventionists need to wrap their heads around the concept that nuthin IS a “concrete policy” and, in some cases, the best one available.

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