Everyone wants to defeat ISIS. Both presidential candidates have made this central to their campaigns. In truth, such is the oft-stated goal of the current Obama administration as well. But in the pursuit of this common cause, they disagree on how to achieve it.
President Obama asserts that ISIS is being relentlessly destroyed by a few thousand American advisors to the Iraqi army, and by some 40 Special Forces operatives in Syria assisting pro-Western militias. Unfortunately, this is more dithering than a strategy, and is doing nothing to topple the murderous Assad regime in Damascus as its allied Russian Air Force bombs the Syrian forces Washington supports. Hillary Clinton boasts of having a plan, but is emphatic that there will be no American boots on the ground. These cows, however, are already out of the barn in that there are currently thousands of American boots on Afghani, Iraqi, Syrian, Somali and Libyan grounds. In brief, America is now irrevocably in this far deeper than Hillary is willing to admit to her idealistic political base. Donald Trump, for all his braggadocio of decisively defeating ISIS, has a “secret” plan that is probably centered more on cutting a deal with soon-to-be buddy, Vladimir Putin, than on putting more boots on the ground.
Despite this cacophony, there is one point on which they all agree: the United States will NOT do nation-building. If this is true, then none of them is serious about defeating ISIS. The simple truth is this: the final defeat of ISIS can only come through nation-building. Here’s why.
To start, let us return to the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in the ‘90s. With the relief from the end of the dangerous nuclear stand-off taking center stage, what was not noticed, at least in the West, was the cancerous growth of some forty failing states, where regional and ethnic rivalries coupled with economic declines triggered break-downs in political infrastructures. The result has been social disintegration and the rise of both “democratic springs” and radical ideologies to reconstitute these fallen states in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Nigeria, Chad, Haiti, and even nuclear-armed Pakistan and North Korea.
Out of this global anarchy, ISIS has erupted as a volcanic politico-religious movement to create a new state, really the “old” caliphate of the Islamic world—for openers focused on the tottering states of Iraq and Syria. In so doing, ISIS has mounted a direct military challenge to the existing states of the region, and has grounded this challenge in a radical Islamic theology/ideology that aspires to overthrow the contours of the contemporary international system. As such, it cannot be ignored, and all agree that the military challenge must be defeated. Even if this is successful, the ideological challenge (and attraction) will not go away until its grandiose aspirations are shattered. This can only be done by championing a contrasting and appealing political ideology and functioning infrastructure of government that realigns these aspirations into practical participation in civil societies with peaceful politics.
There is no short-handed way to do this. To stop the massacres and de-capitations employed by ISIS will require the essentials of nation-building. Standard textbooks on this summarize it as involving four tasks: security, reconstituting political authority, the importance of coalitions, and reconstruction and economic development. The key to security is to commit a potent stabilizing force for the duration of the nation-building process. A stabilizing force is one that serves as a deterrent fire wall against any insurgent force contemplating a frontal seizure of power. Such a firewall must involve some American ground combat troopers, “boots on the ground.” Political authority must be reconstituted to be reflective of societal values. In this, the textbooks insist that special attention should be paid to creating coalitions integrated into the nation-state. This is to preclude separate regions or ethnic groups carving out ethnic enclaves and fielding their own militias, thereby weakening state institutions. None of this can succeed without requisite levels of economic assistance.
What nation-building demands is sacrifice and commitment to end the suffering and de-stabilizing threats that the murderous bloodletting of ISIS poses to the peace of the world. Washington’s commitments today to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to date are half-hearted at best. If the United States does not want to fully commit itself to the demands of nation-building for a Middle East in flames, it should stop thinking of itself as a world power on the global stage.