Though Congress and the president are out of town, the final weeks of August have seen the arrival of an unexpectedly critical moment. The brutal beheading of James Foley by ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) confirmed that there remains a Sunni jihadist terrorism problem in the Mideast: decimating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden didn’t end it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that America’s destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003 created the opportunity for ISIS to grow and thrive, as America’s Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, gave ISIS financial backing.
How to respond? The usually wise Andy Bacevich suggests that ISIS constitutes a negligible threat to America, a superpower an ocean away, that bombing it has become—like bombing elsewhere, America’s substitute for a genuine national security strategy. Bacevich suggests we ought to butt out, except perhaps to give aid to countries genuinely threatened by ISIS. There is much to this argument, as there is little inclination from the American people to send ground troops once again into Iraq. And even if we were willing to reconstitute and send an occupation force, what good would it do? In a similar vein, Paul Pillar argues that overestimating ISIS as a potential threat is perhaps more likely, and dangerous, than underestimating it.
But few are comfortable with doing little or nothing: ISIS is undoubtedly barbaric, with possible potential to spread. In important ways the situation resembles the months after 9/11, in which America were brutally confronted with the sudden emergence of Sunni extremism which had not previously been deemed a major problem.
Then as now, an influential group of neoconservatives, tightly allied with Israel, had a very specific idea of what they wanted the United States to do. The neocons then—and still do—aspired for an almost endless series of American wars and invasions across the entire Middle East. Because in 2001 we were already engaged in a sort of shadow war with Saddam Hussein—Iraq was under a semi-blockade and America was enforcing a no fly zone over the country—Iraq was the logical starting point. But for the neocons Iraq was only a beginning. “Real men want to go to Tehran” was the neoconservative semi-jokey catchword during that time, and they quite seriously expected that after Baghdad was digested as an appetizer, they could steer the United States into war with Iran—then as now a top Israeli priority. That an American war with Iran was an Israeli priority does not mean Israel opposed the Iraq war: polls at the time indicated that Israel was the only country in the world where large popular majorities were enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and Israeli politicians were regularly invited to appear as guests American news talk shows in order to beat the Iraq invasion drums. Steve Walt’s and John Mearsheimer’s indispensable book The Israel Lobby, contains pages filled with quotations from Israeli leaders making hawkish pronouncements to American audiences; the quotes are a necessary corrective to present to present Israeli efforts to proclaim that an American invasion of Iraq was never really an Israeli objective.
If ISIS is to be contained or defeated without using American ground troops, it is necessary to examine the regional forces ready to fight it. There are of course the Kurds, a small group which can perhaps defend its own region, if that. The biggest potential player is Iran. With its majority Shia population Iran takes a dim view of Sunni jihadism; the Iranian population was pretty much the only one in the Muslim world to display open sympathy with Americans after 9/11. By the standards of the Middle East, it is a scientific powerhouse, with a large freedom aspiring middle class, and considerable artistic community. According to published reports, Iranian tanks have reportedly engaged ISIS near the Iranian border—probably with American approval. We are likely, I would guess, to hear more about Iranian tank brigades in the coming months, even root for them.
The other serious force willing to fight ISIS is Syria, led by the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. Assad is a dictator, as was his father. His regime is strongly supported by Syria’s Christians, by Iran, and by Hezbollah, the Sh’ite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has been caught up in civil war of shocking brutality for the past four years. The largest faction opposing him is ISIS—and American arms distributed to the Syrian “rebels” have often ended up in ISIS hands. By opposing Assad, the United States has in effect been feeding ISIS.
It would seem logical that if ISIS really is a threat—a metastasizing terrorist entity and enemy of America and all civilization—then the United States should patch up its relations with Syria and Iran to deal with it. That’s the advocacy of some groups favoring a detente with Iran (like the National Iranian-American Council), which views Iran as the most stable state in the region. But there is a problem: Israel hates Iran, and hates Syria because of Iran. The only Arab military force to give Israel any difficulty in the past 40 years is Hezbollah, armed by and allied with Iran. No matter how much Israel pretends to dislike Sunni extremism, it hates Iran more, because Iran has scientific, cultural, and political potential to be a major rival to Israel in the Middle East.
So the neoconservatives are arguing that the United States confront ISIS by sending in its own troops (“primarily” special forces, or a contingent of 10-15,000 “for now”) but hoping of course that can be expanded upon later, rather than relying on regional allies. This is essentially a revised variant of the policies they advocated after 9/11—divert Americans away from confronting a threat from Sunni jihadists, while preparing the ground for a subsequent war with a state actor that Israel doesn’t like. So the neocons will argue against any policy which contemplates detente with Iran or a lessening of tension with Syria, because they recognize that if the United States comes to view Iran as an ally in the fight against ISIS or other Sunni extremists, their goal of an American war with Iran is gone, probably forever. Bibi Netanyahu has boasted to Israeli audiences that America is something “easily moved” by Israel’s public relations abilities, unregistered agents, and other well-wishers. But Bibi and his allies are likely to find their proposals to send American troops back into the Mideast a hard sell.
A final point: over the past two generations thousands of articles have been written proclaiming that Israel is a “vital strategic ally” of the United States, our best and only friend in the “volatile” Middle East. The claim is a commonplace among serving and aspiring Congressmen. I may have missed it, but has anyone seen a hint that our vital regional ally could be of any assistance at all in the supposedly civilizational battle against ISIS? Fact is, when you use the most powerful military in the Mideast to continuously brutalize Palestinian children, your usefulness as a regional ally becomes pretty limited.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.