ISIS will be defeated by the United States and a multinational coalition. In a worst-case scenario, the Obama administration will stall as long as possible and pass the buck on to the next administration. However, it seems highly unlikely that he will be able to do so, and he is already giving way to the inevitability of America’s need to address the crisis unfolding in Syria and Iraq. More than likely we will be looking at a radically different situation by early 2015, including an overt U.S. military force deployed against ISIS.
Even after ISIS is removed, America will be facing a larger and more difficult problem. Despite our aversion to nation building, and despite our distaste for yet another war in Iraq, the Middle East is a region of the world that the United States has not been able to extricate itself from. Whatever our political views, our military continues to be deployed to this part of the world to fight the battles for American interests.
Because of this, we need to change from short-term reactions and start thinking about long-term strategies. How can we build strong partnerships and an aligned view of the future in the region? Military action has never and will never be enough. Many Americans throw their hands up in the air when discussing the Middle East and suggest that we should just use nuclear weapons turn it into a glass parking lot. Veterans understand where this frustration comes from, but it is just that, frustration, which leads nowhere and is not a realistic policy option.
We might not like the idea of nation building, yet we keep finding ourselves caught up in costly entanglements in the Middle East. Unless we want to fight Gulf Wars 4, 5, and 6, we need to reassess our current approach.
The aftermath of our war against ISIS will leave in its wake a massive humanitarian crisis and a power vacuum that will be ripe for other bad actors in the region to fill if we don’t recognize this now and prepare for it. The long-term solution to ensure that America does not have to continue fighting these wars is a massive economic program rivaling FDR’s New Deal.
Iraq and Syria will need education programs, schools built, and job training. Constructing and staffing these education centers is something that a Western coalition can help with. These education centers will also help counter the propaganda of radical Islam. Graduates of these programs will also need jobs.
America and our partners can bring in experts and employ Iraqis to modernize the country’s electrical network, build power plants, construct modern sewage and water systems and desalination plants, and introduce modern agricultural techniques to farmers. The entire economies of Syria and Iraq will have to be overhauled, modernized, and turned into market-driven systems that actually serve their citizens, instead of autocracies that fill the pockets of the rich, politically connected, and corrupt.
The U.S. military, State Department, USAID, and non-governmental organizations will have to partner with the Iraqi people to create a true counterinsurgency campaign, one that not only kills the enemies but also prevents them from having any credibility in the first place. This new campaign will actually siphon away the sources of power, which radical Islam draws from as people begin to see alternatives.
This has been the trap that many Middle Eastern nations have been stuck in since the 1960s. Communism was a failed system, and it failed the Middle East horribly. Without plausible alternatives to communism, the Middle East has been left to stagnate. The human wreckage left in the wake of this disaster has turned radical Islam into a populist movement. The defeat of ISIS will open new venues of opportunity for America, but only if we take an active role in thinking about and designing what the future looks like.
In other words, our victory against ISIS will be another chance to get it right. We can reverse the polarities of terror, but it will be harder than simply defeating a terrorist organization. The old power structures of the Middle East will resist the changes that would sweep in with a U.S.-led economic reform program. The elites of these nations will resent having their power base undermined as the regular men and women are empowered and given their fair shot at having a future.
It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. America’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been inconsistent and schizophrenic for decades. However painful it will be to engage in nation building, the alternatives are far worse. This is our opportunity to reverse the polarities of war and change the Middle East forever.
The following is an excerpt from The Tree of Knowledge. The book is enlightening and powerful.
A story is told of an island somewhere and its inhabitants. The people longed to move to another land where they could have a healthier and better life. The problem was that the practical arts of swimming and sailing had never been developed—or may have been lost long before. For that reason, there were some people who simply refused to think of alternatives to life on the island, whereas others intended to seek a solution to their problems locally, without any thought of crossing the waters [the current state of thinking in America—authors]. From time to time, some islanders reinvented the arts of swimming and sailing. Also from time to time a student would come up to them, and the following exchange would take place:
“I want to swim to another land.”
“For that you have to learn how to swim. Are you ready to learn?”
“Yes, but I want to take with me my ton of cabbages.”
“The food I’ll need on the other side or wherever it is.”
“But what if there’s food on the other side?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not sure. I have to bring my cabbages with me.”
“But you won’t be able to swim with a ton of cabbages. It’s too much weight.”
“Then I can’t learn how to swim. You call my cabbages weight. I call them my basic food.”
“Suppose this were an allegory and, instead of talking about cabbages we talked about fixed ideas, presuppositions, or certainties?”
“Humm . . . I’m going to bring my cabbages to someone who understands my needs.”
Suppose we think about our traditional ideas surrounding American culture and religion as our own “cabbages” that prevent us from new thinking toward the situation in the Middle East. How do we cast off fixed ideas and engage in new thought? Once upon a time, it was unpopular to believe that Earth was round and revolved around the sun; in fact, the church could jail you for thinking this. We would be smart to remember this when thinking about how to deal with the problems of radicalism in the world today—and tomorrow.
Historically, Americans have largely been optimistic in our approach to problems and our shared cultural perspective of the world. As Peter Theil explains in Zero to One, we have shifted away from definite optimism (a definitive and positive view of things) toward something far more destructive, an indefinite view of the world. Social masses in America have become largely uncertain of the future, and many hold false hope that someone else will come along to fix it. As Peter Theil puts it, “We have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it.”
We believe that a cultural revolution is possible.