How To “Contain” A Problem Like Jihadism?

Unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of ISIL in Turkey

A reader quotes me:

Except, of course, it was Kennan’s careful and conservative case for containment that ultimately won the Cold War without the near-Armageddon that the predecessors of today’s chronic interventionists (Kennedy especially) nearly brought us to.

As someone who advocated a continuation of the containment policy towards Saddam Hussein rather than an invasion as you did, I think it needs reminding that “containment” during the Cold War did not mean isolationism, or doing nothing, but instead involved a very complex series of actions and alliances, including using force as an option. Keenan’s containment policy, as actually put into action, was a very active form of engagement with the entire world. It’s during that time that our entire “military-industrial complex” rose to prominence and influence.

So invoking Kennan and Cold War containment makes the opposite case in terms of our foreign policy in the Middle East, or against ISIL or Syria or whomever. Containment is a way of actively engaging these military threats, while being under no illusion that full-scale invasions and occupations are the solution.

I see Obama’s strategy in relation to ISIS and the Iraq to be one, essentially, of the same kind of active containment that our country used during the Cold War. Engagement, not isolationism, is the key. And that includes some use of force, and the arming ofiraq2 various groups, realistically understanding that we are not going to “win” by these means, but that we can at least prevent anyone else from winning either, and by drawing out the conflict over decades, we can ensure that the natural superiority in the underlying cultural and economic conflicts will resolve themselves in our favor.

It’s clear that preventing ISIS or any other radical Islamist group from taking power over a country such as Iraq is in America’s interests. That doesn’t mean that we should re-invade the country, but it does mean that we should remain militarily engaged to make sure it doesn’t happen, without of course going overboard on the idealism and machismo.

It’s of course debatable as to which containment strategies will work best in any given set of circumstances, but I don’t think one of the options is just walking away from the Middle East and assuming all will work out best without our involvement. That’s the first kind of isolationism Keenan described and criticized. The second kind, isn’t even one that Keenan himself advocated, given his endorsement of large US military bases in Europe and around the world, and military engagements in local clashes as Cold War proxies. So don’t go hiding behind Keenan as some sort of shield for advocating that the US should just disengage from these sorts of wars and conflicts.

My reader makes some excellent points, so let me explain why I still do not agree. There is a core difference between the threat we face today and the threat we confronted during the Cold War. The threat today is asymmetrical, whereas the face-off between the US and the USSR was eerily symmetrical. This means that the use of force against our current enemy is much more easily turned back against us – and the zero-sum assumptions of the Cold War can easily splinter into a myriad complications and unintended consequences when confronting global Jihad.

We did not have to worry in the battle against communism that we would somehow create many more spontaneous support for communism by resisting it; and we were confronting a huge multi-nation state, with a unitary command structure and global allies and puppets.

With Jihadism, we are beset by countless more complexities. The entities we are fighting change, melt away, re-group, and are capable of coming back from the near-dead in any anarchic place on earth they can find (and there are many). We are dealing with a world of disorder, not of frozen order. We are not confronting an advanced nation-state seeking to control large swathes of territory by conventional means. We’re dealing with asymmetrical terrorism which cannot be deterred the way the Soviets were, and which can even gain strength by our opposition. This requires a much nimbler, subtler touch – one few statesmen or women can muster for long.

The Jihadists are not suppressing large previously democratic populations with totalitarianism like the Soviets either; they are exploiting deep conflicts within the Muslim world – the Sunni-Shi’a divide pre-eminent among them – which refuels them in a way the bankrupt doctrines of Soviet Communism couldn’t, and in a culture where Western democracy is deeply alien. They are able to exploit all the resentments of those who see the West as a looming tower of decadence and wickedness – a huge f0rce in our modern world.

And they harness (even as they pervert) the immense power of fundamentalist religion, which, unlike communism, has roots deep in many cultures, and is resurgent in part because of the perceived threat of modernity (something that is not going to go away soon). The kind of raw military power that could deter the Soviets – as in the nuclear stand-off – simply does not work against the kinds of insurgencies we have been tackling.

We know this. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq – which I fear may be a permanent feature of that region unless the Sunnis retake control of what’s left of the central government – was bribed and charmed into quiescence for a brief period – while we had tens of thousands of troops in country. Once we left – and even if we had stayed with a residual force – we had no leverage to keep it at bay, as the deeper contradictions of the imperial construct of Iraq unfold. Our allies, unlike in the Cold War, also have many different agendas. Take Turkey, a NATO stalwart against the Soviets. Today, Turkey is beset with a much more complex set of problems – a Rubik’s Cube of how to control Kurdish separatism and depose Assad while resisting ISIS. And we expect an alliance as in the olden days? In the Cold War, moreover, we had no major NATO allies actually funding communist ideology and secretly arming the Soviet Union – while many of our so-called allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, are both the cause and purported solution to our dilemma.

In my opinion, we have learned these past few years that a conventional attempt to defeat Jihadism – by invasion and occupation – will fail, unless we construct a permanent imperial presence, which we neither want nor can afford. We have learned that drones and air-power can help at times – but also over time hurt, by incurring civilian casualties which emboldens our enemies, or splintering insurgencies into ever-more extreme and fringe groups; we have learned that funneling arms to our supposed allies can easily backfire – as ISIS’ plentiful supply of purloined US hardware attests to; and we have learned – and are fast re-learning – that when local governments lack legitimacy – like Baghdad’s or Kabul’s – the use of air-power against an insurgency is even less effective. In those circumstances, I believe we simply have to accept that, whatever our motives and power, there are some problems we cannot solve. And my concern with the president’s ISIS policy is that he has led Americans to believe that we can “ultimately destroy” something that we simply cannot.

Until Iraq’s Sunnis really believe Baghdad can represent them, there will be no progress against ISIS. The one sliver of hope I see is the current desperation of some Sunni tribes in the face of ISIS’ brutality. There’s a report in the NYT today on those lines. Money quote:

After enduring weeks of abuse by insurgents of the group called Islamic State, members of the Aza tribe struck a secret deal last month with local police and military officials: The authorities would supply weapons to two tribal regiments totaling about 1,150 fighters, and in return the tribe would help government security forces fight Islamic State.

Several days later, the tribal regiments, in collaboration with Iraqi government troops and Shiite militia fighters, liberated 13 villages in Diyala Province from Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, officials said. “ISIS has humiliated the top sheikhs of Diyala and has done horrible and unforgivable crimes against people here,” said Abu Othman al-Azawi, an Aza sheikh and a member of the provincial council. “They tried to vandalize the tribal system and break its ties.”

But even this is a very tricky business:

The geometry of tribes and tribal loyalties in Iraq is byzantine. Allegiances — even within tribes — can vary from province to province, district to district, village to village. Iraqi officials have also been concerned that arming Sunni tribes could enable the formation of paramilitary organizations that could turn quickly against the Shiite-led government.

But note one essential thing about this potentially good sign. It happened not because we made it happen; it emerged out of a convergence of interest among the relevant parties. That’s the only way this will find some kind of resolution – and our neo-imperial meddling can actually impede it as easily as help it. Less is sometime more; more is sometimes less. But at some point, amid these dizzying complexities in regions the locals know far far better than we do, we have to ask ourselves if this kind of challenge is simply too hard for us to overcome, and whether less intervention can do more to undermine our enemies than more. We may well be better off keeping our heads down, bolstering our defenses (which is why I am not a huge critic of the NSA), and occasionally pivoting to exploit an opening on the ground.

I cannot prove this, no more than the interventionists can prove that more meddling will help. But I cannot look at the past decade and draw the conclusion that more intervention is the real solution to our woes. In fact, I think it is close to madness to believe so.

(Photo: Protesters take streets across Turkey to hold unauthorized demonstrations against the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants toward central Kobani, in Istanbul, Turkey on October 7, 2014.  By Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)