The Caravan was conceived as a vehicle for thoughtful and elevated discourse on the Middle East, especially the dangers that Islamism poses to the international order. This time we turn to the terrorist attacks in Paris which demonstrated the capacity of ISIS to cause devastation in Western capitals, even as it remains a formidable force in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The attacks in Paris were hardly necessary to demonstrate the brutality of ISIS. Its threat to regional stability in the Middle East has long been in evidence, and now we know that its terror can reach into Western capitals. But ISIS is hardly the only challenge to American power and the international order.
Daesh or ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any state except Syria and Iraq. It occupies and controls ungoverned space in the region between Iraq and Syria and in parts of northern Africa; and its self-proclaimed Caliphate has benefited from the seizure of some income producing assets in these areas.
Three Western academic disciplines have risen to the challenge of interpreting the jihadist enemy: political science, military science and history. It would seem natural for political and military scientists to discern form and pattern in the revolutionary movement that is seizing many of the headlines of the 21st century. On the other hand, historians would be ill at ease explaining the significance of current events and discerning trends within them...
A word of comfort first: Terror, no matter how spectacular, cannot score strategic victories against the West. “Strategic failure” means ISIS cannot break a nation-state’s will, nor render it defenseless the way Hitler’s armies subjugated France and Poland in a matter of weeks.
Can the United States stop the Syrian refugee crisis and destroy the Islamic State without sending tens of thousands of soldiers into Syria and Iraq? Hillary Clinton and the Republican presidential candidates—with the notable exception of Senator Lindsey Graham—have so far studiously avoided describing how their battle plans would seriously differ from Barack Obama's.
The November attacks in Paris claimed by ISIS came from the convergence of two forces. One is Jihadism, a global and multifaceted socio-behavioral phenomenon. The other is ISIS, an organization that operates in the Levant and Mesopotamia. ISIS can occasionally project itself beyond its base by leveraging the Jihadist phenomenon, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, or now France. But despite the global noise, ISIS should be read in its regional context.
In 1881, an obscure local religious leader in Sudan by the name of Mohamed Ahmed declared himself the long awaited Mahdi (divinely guided one). The claim was ridiculous at best, as established religious leaders were quick to proclaim. The prophecies of the coming of the Mahdi, while open to interpretation, clearly did not point to Mohamed Ahmed.
President Obama raises an interesting and important challenge for those of us who believe his approach to the threat of ISIS is misguided: develop a better strategy. Any successful strategy requires three elements: a defined political end state, a prescribed series of actions to attain the end state, and means commensurate with your aims. President Obama’s strategy fails all three of those tests.
For a no-drama presidency, there was drama wrapped in urgency inside spectacle when President Obama delivered an Oval Office address to the nation – only his third in seven years – to confirm that the San Bernardino mass murders were, in fact, a terrorist act linked, if only by inspiration and allegiance, to the Islamic State.