(Not) Defeating ISIS and Iran

Policy-making by committee rarely works well, as the five-man team at the Washington Institute demonstrates to near perfection.  The quintet of (truly) distinguished policy-makers has produced something  termed a Strategy to Defeat ISIS and Iran, but it does neither.  I’ve been through it several times and can’t find a single proposal that would “defeat” either one.  In fact, at one point Messrs Hadley, Ross, Jeffrey, Berger and Satloff state quite categorically that while we might prevail militarily against ISIS,


…military action is only one dimension; ISIL cannot be defeated unless it is also discredited. Only Muslims can undermine ISIL’s fanatical ideology, and they must take the lead in doing so.

Whenever I read such language—which is not rare—I have to suppress a scream, because a lot of the history of 20th century totalitarianism shows that fanatical ideologies (fascism, Nazism and communism, for example) were fatally undermined by military defeat.  Both IS and the Iranian regime claim their imperialism is blessed by Allah.  Their military success is attributed to the support of the Almighty.  If they are defeated, especially by infidel American, or American-led fighters, what does that do to the ideology?  Did Allah go over to the other side?

I don’t think we, or anyone else, is going to “defeat” IS or Iran by “discrediting” their crazed ideology.  To be sure, I do think we would do well to endorse Egyptian President al Sisi’s call for a radical transformation of Islamist doctrines.  The Islamists are nuts, they’ve wrecked two big countries in the Middle East so far (Egypt under the Brotherhood, and Iran under the mullahs), and we should say so.  Most Iranians and Egyptians know it, we won’t shock them.

Oddly, given all this attention to the centrality of ideology, when it comes to Iran the quintet retreats into pure, almost pidgin geopolitics:


The most powerful elements in Iran today still see the United States as their enemy. This is not simply because of a conspiratorial mind-set about American determination to subvert the Islamic Republic, but also because they see America as the main impediment to their domination of the region.

This verges on disrespect for the doctrines of the Islamic Republic.  Never mind “death to America!” chanted by people who look at us as the Great Satan.  It’s all about regional hegemony.  Why, then, bother with “discrediting” the doctrines?

There’s still the need for defeating IS and Iran, to demonstrate their doctrinal failures.  But you won’t find any such strategy in the five-handed concerto.  Instead, the language is very diplomatic, as you’d expect from former diplomats and policy makers.  They say we need a new Syria policy, which we certainly do, but instead of “defeating” IS in Syria, they talk about creating a (Sunni) coalition to “marginalize” it.

And what is this strategy?  It seems to be to create safe havens for the good guys, aka opponents of the Assad regime, as part of an effort to demonstrate that Assad can’t win.  It seems like a fantasy to me, frankly, and they don’t seem very optimistic either.  They admit that the strategy won’t work if we admit the Iranians to the alliance (the Sunnis, from Egypt and the Emirates to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, would scream bloody murder).  But neither does there seem to be any chance of getting the Iranians to go along with such a gambit.  Iran has gone all-out to save the Assad regime, sending tens of thousands of Hezbollahis and Quds Force fighters to slaughter Assad’s enemies, of whatever ethnic or doctrinal color.


Ergo, none of the new Syrian policy seems to have the slightest realistic chance of success, even within the carefully crafted boundaries of diplospeak.  So the five authors try to change the subject.  Instead of a strategy to defeat the fanatics, they wrap it all in the mantle of a Big Idea:  save the Middle East state system from destruction.  At the end of their essay, the five define their mission as setting forth “a strategy to preserve (the Middle East state system),” and they warn that this will require “a long-term vision for shoring up U.S. allies, rolling back ISIL and countering the Iranians.”

It’s a worthy objective, and they are wise to focus our attention on it.  But without even drawing a breath, they wrap up the whole thing with a warning to think small.  “The United States will not define the future for the region, but it has a distinct national interest in preventing the collapse of its state system.”

I rather think the United States is quite capable of defining the region’s future, and I think Americans should always think big.  Beginning with supporting regime change in Tehran.  That would at least be consistent with the quintet’s title.  It would do a lot more than advance our interests in the Middle East.  It would change the whole world.


FOOTNOTE:  The quintet’s essay was republished by Politico.


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