The advancing onslaught of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq has left observers scrambling. Analysts have published articles and referenced history in an effort to explain why the timing of the surge is significant and how the current strategic and tactical efforts of the network support an overarching motivation and goal. These variables would ostensibly assist the public in understanding the purpose for the group’s existence.

As a consequence of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, many policy analysts have subscribed to the perception that U.S. influence around the world is waning. Comparatively speaking, many of these same analysts have pointed to the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) as both a variable in the collapse of American influence as well as for context in proving the point that American power is in decline. Taken in context of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq in many countries around the globe, it is easy to accept that American foreign policy remains a divisive issue at best and for many an example of American decline at worst. Domestic politics has compounded the clouding of this issue. American policy makers and security strategists are often restrained due to the United States’ character as a Republic. The accountability of Executive and Legislative office holders to their constituencies in elections ensures a modicum of responsibility is impressed upon each elected official in the form of votes. This ensures that the decisions of the American government remain close to the people and lends transparency to the process of governing and executing foreign policy.

The surge of ISIS into Iraq this past month has brought recent American foreign policy decision back into the public debate in stark relief. Observers have noted the shrewdness of the social media savvy group in embracing its public profile and have analysed the group’s statements in an effort to understand where the group envisions itself as regards the international structure. With the establishment of The Islamic Caliphate, the group is clearly in pursuit of tacit international legitimacy and the benefits that come with a recognized state. However, it is unlikely that the international community would even consider offering the group the legitimacy of a recognized state, largely due to the nature in which the group arrived at the declaration and the threat that the group poses to all surrounding states. A key moment in the history of ISIS is certainly the takeover of Mosul in Iraq. We analyzed the offensive into Mosul at Foreign Intrigue on June 11 as ISIS moved into Mosul in our article “ISIS and the Fall of Mosul.” News outlets have produced good information and background as well. ABC News noted a map tweeted out by ISIS this past weekend.

ISIS has built its reputation as the the standard-bearer of jihad in its years of war in Syria. In battling the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to a stalemate, ISIS has garnered international appeal in fundamentalist circles while inspiring and attracting recruits from Europe and the Caucasus. The potential for a wider international jihadist effort, inspired and spearheaded by a suddenly surging ISIS, has become the topic du jour for many western policy analysts. As the crisis in Iraq has escalated, policy professionals and military analysts have been producing public assessments of ISIS, breaking down the group’s motivations, strategies, and goals. A few writers in particular have bravely strayed from conventional wisdom as it is constructed with the ongoing events in Iraq and have drawn keen interest for their conclusions.

In her International Policy Digest article, “Beyond Iraq: Consequences of the ISIS Advance,” Danielle Grassi outlines several variables to help explain the motivation for the timing of the ISIS surge. Grassi states that the factors laid out in her article have catalyzed and  burgeoned the success of the group in the past year.

Further, she posits that the recent capture of territory throughout Iraq helps explain where the group will focus next and for what purpose. Grassi notes that the astonishing speed by which Iraqi cities have fallen, how the regime of Nouri al-Maliki has helped facilitate the rapid decline in stability left by United States military and diplomatic forces, and underlines the sectarian divisions that would theoretically play a pivotal role in the bloody violence ISIS hopes to foment in Iraq.

Grassi begins with an analysis of the effectiveness of ISIS in battling a state military in Syria. Grassi posits that the Syrian conflict has force-multiplied the effectiveness of what is, by comparison to the Syrian state military, a miniscule force:

Events in Syria should have represented a wake-up call to policymakers both locally and internationally. The rapid conquest of Raqqa and other territories in northern Syria had already highlighted the great military capabilities of the group and its high degree of organization. (Grassi, International Policy Digest, June 19)

Among the more interesting aspects of the rise of ISIS in Grassi’s article is the reduced profile and threat of Al Qaeda and the influence of Iran. Grassi goes on to note that the Iranian regime’s focus on disrupting efforts by Sunni groups to unseat the Shi’a regime of al-Assad has resulted in an exacerbation of the sectarian rifts that have increasingly festered between Shi’a and Sunni groups throughout the Middle East for several decades. Grassi asserts that through their efforts to retain and sustain proxy groups that have battled it out in the Levant in recent years, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have effectively destabilized the entire region beyond the confinement of recent state conflicts in Iraq and Syria:

Along with Saudi Arabia, Iran is one of the main protagonists of the events of recent years. By exacerbating the confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, Tehran (the main sponsor of the government of al-Maliki) and Riyadh have destabilized the entire region, with severe consequences that only now have begun to show their severity. The struggle for leadership in the region is underway in other theatres: Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, just to mention a few. These are countries that have deep divisions and their governments have so far been unable to provide a political class that is capable of addressing national interests. (Grassi, International Policy Digest, June 19)

The key takeaways from the ISIS move into Iraq for Kabul and Washington are likely to be how quickly a growing but still comparatively weak regime like that in Baghdad can be torn asunder by sectarian strife and political infighting.  In particular, the disintegration of large segments of the Iraqi national security forces, the wilting national character of Iraqis, and the lack of transparent government is an adequate parallel for the government in Kabul. Problems plaguing Iraq, to include the lack of established transparency in government, the dearth of good governance, the sectarian fissures, and the ineffective reach of the national government in Baghdad could be prologue for a post-ISAF Afghanistan:

The disintegration of Iraq and the advance of ISIS is fuelling a lot of anxiety even in Kabul. The U.S. administration has recently announced that the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will be finalized by 2016. Two years does not represent a sufficient time span for the country to complete the process of effective consolidation of national institutions, or the limitations of internal and regional stakeholders who oppose these dynamics. On the contrary, these stakeholders can draw an important lesson from the events going on in Iraq, reinforcing their belief that pursuing their own partisan interests represents the best option. (Grassi, International Policy Digest, June 19)

In the last portion of her article, Grassi addresses the events in Iraq as a case study in analyzing a perceived decline in American power. In recent years, the decline of American power has become an assumption on which to base critiques of a less interventionist American foreign policy strategy. Grassi’s conclusion that historians may well regard the offensive of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as another sign of declining American power is misguided. To counter, one may postulate that the policies that have catalyzed divestment militarily from conflicts in Iraq and Syria have more to do with waning public support for expensive engagements in a weakened domestic economy.

The United States clearly still wields a potent combination of soft power and military might. This is reflected strongly in the Iraqi government’s official appeals to the U.S. for military assistance in their battle against ISIS. The United States’ stick (military superiority) and and carrot (diplomatic influence) represent the world’s foremost combination of hard and soft power. Even considering that the constraints on the use of that power (the global opposition to the war in Iraq and waning domestic support for the war in Afghanistan), the U.S. remains the most formidable power on Earth. However, noting the constraints is not a reflection of waning influence itself. It is the political will that encompasses the ability of the administration to apply that power in the form of implemented foreign policy (operations and diplomatic agreements) that is at issue in Iraq, not the capability itself. Comparatively, the U.S. sustains the most powerful military on Earth while simultaneously wielding largely unmatched diplomatic influence, even with the tightening of constraints on that power in the form of opposition to U.S. foreign policy around the world. The issues with applying that power are domestic. Political constituencies, election cycles, and budgetary constraints have conflated to produce a difficult domestic environment on which the president, his foreign policy team, and key members of Congress can implement the soft and hard power of the United States in securing national interests and achieving strategic goals. It is the application of that power and not its relative capability that lend to the perception of waning American influence.

The U.S. remains capable of influencing governments throughout the world in the furtherance of American security interests. The failure to apply that power effectively via policy should not be interpreted as a reduction in American influence or any real or comparative decline in American power.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)