American Aloofness Hurts the Fight Against ISIL

By Robert Cohen

The slow progress against ISIL and the recent coldness shown to Syrian refugees are both symptoms of the same failing American policy: that the struggle against ISIL is fundamentally the Arabs’ fight, not America’s.  This bipartisan position, manifested by the Democrats’ reluctance to send combat troops and the Republicans’ unwillingness to absorb any refugees, reflects a long history of American aversion to foreign entanglements naturally exacerbated by recent Middle East events.  However, the strategic options which remain after accounting for this reluctance are proving wholly insufficient for meeting the generational struggle taking place today against radical Islam. It hampers our military capabilities, but the damage done to the ideological struggle is far greater.

The effect on military progress is obvious.  With Western troops limited to an “Advise and Assist” role, the fight in non-Kurdish areas depends entirely on soldiers from the fragmented Iraqi Army.  The young men who comprise this Army, while wanting to defeat ISIL, nevertheless face rivalling tribal and religious loyalties, widespread cynicism about state and senior officer corruption, naked urgency by Western powers to leave the region, and a grim awareness of extremism’s durability in the region.  These factors make it very hard for Iraqi soldiers to believe that any victory for which they would risk their necks will endure more than a few years. Without the tactical and morale boost from Western militaries, the six-month stalemate around Ramadi is utterly unsurprising. Worse still for those that want ISIL defeated, the longer the stalemate, the more time ISIL has to build defenses, deaden Iraqi morale, and draw recruits.

But in a 21st century war of ideology, the military confrontations in Iraq are but part of a much larger war.  Even if Ramadi and Mosul fell tomorrow, we obviously could not proclaim victory over radical Islam. The victory which will end the war against Islamic extremism is not the recapture of a few dusty cities in Anbar province, but the sustained inclusion of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims in the global project of building a pluralistic and prosperous future.  In the ideological struggle between the West and radical Islam, they are the only audience in play, the only audience that can sustainably discredit radical Islam, and thus the only audience that matters. This was the lesson of the Surge—that protecting and supporting the civilian population is more important than killing the enemy. In this arena, Western scorn and nativism are proving even more strategically destructive than our inertia around Ramadi.  

The vast majority of the world’s Muslims want what most humans want—peace, prosperity and the freedom to live their lives as they wish, including practicing their religion.  In my recent deployment to Kuwait and Iraq, I spoke with several young Iraqi men. While they implored us to “defeat Da’ish,” they voiced palpable and indignant angst at their future opportunities.  One, who graduated first in his class at university, was actually warned by his school’s counselor that, given the lack of economic opportunity in his country, “Don’t dream too big.” These young men do not want a medieval caliphate, but simply that which was demanded in the Arab Spring: economic opportunity, dignity, safety, and an end to corruption.  

ISIL’s barbarity appeals to but a narrow few.  Although this can be shown in many ways, it is perhaps best exemplified by the miniscule percentage of Muslims who support ISIL online.  A recent Brookings Institution study estimated that of the 300 million active Twitter accounts in the world, including tens of millions in the Islamic world, only about fifty thousand accounts support ISIL, which is barely more than the estimated number of ISIL fighters and less than 0.1% of the global total.  In any population of a thousand, we should expect to find at least one crazy (and indeed, the estimated percentage of sociopathy in the general population is about 1-4%). ISIL no more represents the world’s Muslim population than Joseph Kony does its Christians.

Yet despite the narrow appeal of ISIL to the world’s Muslims, suspicion of the West in the Islamic world remains widespread, and the recent xenophobia from politicians and the general public will not help the West even hold the line on this crucial front.  Westerners should recognize that never before has a war been fought in the age of Facebook and Twitter, when the comments and actions of a Muslim in Paris, a Muslim in Raqqa, and a Christian in Iowa all affect on which side will fall the sympathies of the pivotal 1.6 billion people.  ISIL knows the stakes in this arena, and is fighting hard. And although their barbarity should be easy to defeat, when leading American presidential candidates suggest registering all Muslims, barring orphans under age 5, or only accepting Christian refugees, is it any wonder that the world’s Muslims seem reluctant to join with the West in a struggle for the future?

Indeed, if Donald Trump’s bilious bigotry has taught us anything, it is that the perception of the West as uninterested in Muslim flourishing has some validity.  Ever the amoral businessman, Mr. Trump has correctly identified that there exists a market in American politics for brazen Islamophobia. Lindsey Graham calls it the “dark side of American politics,” and it is a market that until Trump not even a politician had had the moral turpitude to openly summon.  But the recent parade of xenophobia has perhaps clarified why an American strategic victory against radical Islam has proved so elusive. For the civilizational struggle of our time is not between Islam and the West, as Trump acolytes believe, but between the forces of order—Muslims and Westerners alike who seek peace, pluralism and prosperity—against a few bands of nihilistic sociopaths with Holy Books, barbarous bloodlust and slick media operations.  

This points to a paradigm shift as the path forward.  In a world with 21st-century connectivity, fighting an ideology should not be the job of soldiers alone.  The forces of order will only finally defeat radical Islam when Westerners join with fence-sitting Muslims to ensure that every eighteen-year-old Iraqi boy has the opportunity to fulfill his economic dreams and to live in a society that celebrates him.  

There could be no more iconic image to underscore this than Western forces taking an “Advise, Assist and Accompany” role, fighting alongside moderate Arab and Kurdish armies to vanquish the nihilists for good.  However, to ensure that any strategic victory over ISIL endures, problematic Westerners must stop undermining the struggle for the hearts of 1.6 billion Muslims. We in the West must therefore practice what we preach, for just as we ask Muslim moderates to rise up against the forces of intolerance and ignorance, so must we summarily discredit and defeat them here at home.