Obama’s strategy against Islamic State? Whack-a-mole

“Comprehensive strategy.” That’s the operative phrase that the Obama administration has employed in rolling out its new campaign to take on Islamic State. With its connotations of scope and gravity, the phrase resonates — not unlike “extra heavy duty” or “bigger and better than ever.” Among observers on both the militant left and the militarized right, it has found favor. That the Islamic State poses something akin to a planetary threat has become the consensus view in such quarters. This, offered after perhaps a bit too much hesitation, is the response that may yet save the day.

In fact, whatever else we may say of the approach that the administration has cobbled together — American air power (assuming the availability of suitable targets) plus surrogates on the ground (if motivated to fight) supported by a hastily assembled coalition vaguely promising to assist “as appropriate” — it does not qualify as a comprehensive strategy. It’s whack-a-mole all over again, the same method that Obama implemented in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, applied now on a larger scale.

Woe betide the patient treated by a physician unable to distinguish between symptom and disease. Woe betide the nation whose leaders suffer from the same failing. Unfortunately, that pretty much defines where the United States finds itself today.

The Islamic State fighters emerged from a set of nontrivial conditions afflicting many nations across the greater Middle East. Figuring prominently among those conditions are political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment and social alienation, along with the pernicious residue of European colonialism still lingering everywhere from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites. Those so inclined can throw into the mix the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.

The key point is this: Were the United States and its partners miraculously to succeed tomorrow in destroying Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, those conditions would still persist. As a consequence, another “Islamic State,” under another banner, inspired by a new leader, would almost certainly appear. And we’ll find ourselves right back where we are today. Indeed, Islamic State is itself a legacy organization, successor to the now defunct Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now this is not reason to forgo attacking Islamic State, a truly vicious and vile enterprise (even if posing a negligible threat to the United States, a flood of overheated rhetoric notwithstanding). But the militants are a symptom, not the disease. American bombs and missiles might well suppress this particular symptom, but surely will not eliminate its cause or even prevent its recurrence.

Here we confront what should by all rights qualify as one of the major lessons to be drawn from the U. S. military’s decades-long involvement in the Islamic world. Armed might, often expended at great human, fiscal and moral cost, holds little promise as the means to fix the problem. It hasn’t worked. Trying harder won’t produce a different outcome. Any strategy worthy of the name, therefore, will necessarily rest on something other than military power.

Of course, proponents of military action reflexively acknowledge that “there is no military solution” to this or that situation. Typically, they utter this platitude immediately before insisting that in the particular situation at hand no non-military alternative exists. So it’s bombs away.

But take that platitude seriously and make it a basis for actual policy. That’s when an authentically comprehensive strategy becomes possible.

What might form the basis of such a policy? Lowering the U. S. military profile, which has proved counterproductive (see the Obama principle: Don’t do stupid stuff). Erecting effective defenses (deter and contain the bad guys). Living up to our professed ideals (demonstrating the universality of liberal values). On the margins, helping the peoples of the Islamic world to reconcile modernity with tradition (which implies making adjustments on their own terms).

A long-term proposition requiring considerable patience and not without risk? You bet. But the alternative is whack-a-mole from now until the cows come home. And that’s no strategy. It’s an admission of failure, accepting permanent war as inevitable.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, is currently a fellow at Columbia University. His online course War for the Greater Middle East goes live Sept. 24.

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