The grotesque beheading of James Foley is stirring passions in Washington policy circles. From the highest levels of the Obama administration to the media pundits, emotions are flaring over what the United States should/could do. The act in itself has changed nothing insofar as IS’ threat to the United States and its significance for Middle East politics are concerned. It is the mood that has been transformed. Irresistible impulse is displacing cool deliberation.
The flood of commentary, as usual, reveals little in the way of rigorous logic but much in the way of disjointed thinking and unchecked emotion. Also as usual, tactics eclipse strategy. Secretary Hagel pronounces IS the gravest threat from Islamist militancy “beyond anything we have seen….an imminent threat to everything we have….a 9/11 level threat.” General Dempsey asserts that IS poses an “immediate” threat and cannot be “defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria and use all means at our disposal. General John Allen who commanded American forces in Afghanistan, calls on President Obama to wipe out ISIS – whatever it takes. That is to say, a feat neither he nor his nine fellow commanders never came close to achieving in Afghanistan. Rick Perry, as headlined in the NYT, warns that the immediate danger is not on the Euphrates or Tigris but the Rio Grande where IS infiltrators already have entered the United States (presumably disguised as Honduran teenagers). Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the self-appointed joint chiefs of “bomber command,” vociferously demand that we hammer IS – although it is not clear where IS stands on the priority list of the many bad guys the hawkish duo insist we must bomb.
These bits of fragmentary diagnosis and prescription – even the sober ones – are not very helpful.
Let’s get down to basics: national interests, threat assessment; measures of a successful policy. We cannot interpret what it means to “defeat” IS until we specify exactly what it is we are worrying about. Is it terrorism launched against the United States (a la 9/11) from the territories they control? Is it toppling the Baghdad government? Toppling the Kurdish government? Invading Jordan or Saudi Arabia? Presenting a long-term terrorist threat in the region that will destabilize governments we want to be stable? These variations of the threat present very different kinds of challenges. They affect American interests in different ways in different magnitudes. They are susceptible to different types of action – by the U.S. or by others.
Airstrikes are only pertinent to threats 2, 3 and 4, with the likelihood and degree of their effectiveness still highly uncertain. “Boots on the ground?” Well, we had a very large force in Iraq for eight years and that did not prevent the emergence of IS from the wounded body of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This enemy is even more formidable. Nor could a new invasion protect the United States from direct terrorist acts. Complete elimination of IS from the territories they occupy is a near impossibility; moreover, to eliminate it permanently as General Allen demands is even more improbable. That is the dilemma we’ve faced with the Taliban in Afghanistan and which for more than a decade we have refused to recognize much less try seriously to solve. Moreover, territorial control for training bases, indoctrination centers, planning cells, etc. is greatly over-rated. Al-Qaeda did not need very much to set in motion the 9/11 attacks. The operational planning and coordination was done in Hamburg and the tactical execution managed from New Jersey.
There is a more general lesson to be learned from this latest exercise in ad hoc policy-making by press conference. The insistence of senior officials to speak at length in public on these complex, sensitive matters when there is no set policy is inimical to serious planning and diplomacy. If they feel compelled to react to events to satisfy the media and an agitated populace, they should just say a few well chosen words and then declare themselves on the way to an important meeting – preferably not in Martha’s Vineyard.
Silence, though, is taken to be tantamount to death in the egocentric media age where image is all – confusing random motion with focused action. The ensuing storm of static in our public space is invasive. It destroys the ability to reflect, to assess, to ponder, to imagine. We have come to ‘think’ in sound bites as well as to talk in sound bites. This is the ultimate endpoint of a political culture where we spend more time trying to sort ourselves out than actually doing anything.
To put it bluntly, there is a persuasive argument to be made that the country would be well served if our leaders observed a moratorium on public statements for several days – ignoring the vain media, the not very knowledgeable or insightful pundits, and the blow-hard politicians – and devoted themselves to some concentrated hard thinking. Serious governments, especially that of a super power, do not conduct their foreign relations in a state of histrionics.
We should be able to do better job of policy analysis than what we have seen to date re IS – and what we have seen during the entire GWOT era. The failure to meet a reasonable standard of sound deliberation and skillful execution has produced a national tragedy. That is an embarrassing commentary on the state of the American government.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.