Another presidential election year is upon us, and for the fourth election cycle in a row, American military intervention in the Middle East is a hot topic. By my count, every candidate running in both parties has pledged to destroy or defeat the Islamic State (popularly known by its former English acronyms “ISIS” or “ISIL”).
These promises range from the lurid (Ted Cruz, Republican: “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”) to the slightly more sober (Hillary Clinton, Democrat: “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS.”), but always the promise is made. After fourteen years of nonstop American warfare in the Middle East, Americans are now being asked to vote for more.
The details of how the destruction of ISIS is to be carried out, however, are usually sparse. So let’s take a look at what the Islamic State actually is, and what it would mean for it to be “destroyed.”
The Islamic State is a terrorist organization, yes. It is also an actual state, a government that rules an area the size of the United Kingdom, home to ten million people, several large cities, and not-insignificant oil fields.
To destroy the Islamic State’s state requires a great deal more than “carpet-bombing.” Someone else would have to move in to take control of the Islamic State’s territory and assume responsibility for the governance of the Islamic State’s population, nearly all of whom are Sunni Muslim Arabs impoverished and traumatized by a decade of war.
So who would take the Islamic State’s place?
Not the Kurds. Their militias, especially the PYD, are exceptionally tenacious fighters, but they have neither the desire nor the ability to conquer and rule over millions of resentful people who don’t share their language or their culture. Besides, our ally Turkey would never let them.
Not the “Syrian opposition.” They are dominated by al Qaeda, and replacing the Islamic State with them would merely substitute one problem for another.
The most practical option would be the governments that used to control this territory: the governments of Syria and Iraq. These governments are also the closest allies of Iran and Russia in the Middle East. It is unlikely that any U.S. president would like to see Iran and Russia solidify their control over this region. Nor would the long-oppressed Sunni Arabs who live in the Islamic State be likely to welcome back their former oppressors – the armies and militias of Syria’s Alawite Muslim dictator, and the Iranian-backed shock troops of Iraq’s Shi’ite government, whose attacks on Islamic State cities like Tikrit and Ramadi have been replete with war crimes against civilians and left these cities virtually uninhabitable.
That leaves us 250,000 American troops at least, possibly with some coalition partners, occupying the region and assuming responsibility for its well-being for the forseeable future.
To my knowledge, no presidential candidate currently in the running has proposed such an invasion and occupation. No wonder – I doubt many Americans would welcome it. But if a presidential candidate who is promising to destroy the Islamic State cannot give a convincing answer to the question of what would take its place, he or she should not be taken seriously on this point.
We should remember that the Islamic State itself is a product of two different, very badly thought-out U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. The first was President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which, by opting for a “light footprint” and relatively low numbers of troops, created a security vacuum and a Sunni-Shi’ite power struggle in which the Islamic State was able to thrive. By 2011, the Islamic State had mostly been suppressed in Iraq by the U.S. troop surge and new alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribes. But then, President Obama, with the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, decided to provide weapons, funds, and training for a Sunni uprising against Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in the hopes of weakening Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia. In the chaos of Syria, Islamic State fighters from across the border in Iraq found the perfect opportunity to regroup and attract angry, brutalized Sunnis to their cause.
In both Iraq and Syria, the U.S. overturned the existing balance of power without taking responsibility for the outcome. The Islamic State is the result. Few of the candidates seem to have learned this lesson.
Indeed, even now the U.S. is engaged in another military intervention in the Middle East, one that is almost never discussed. We are providing intelligence and state-of-the-art weaponry to Saudi Arabia for its war on the impoverished nation of Yemen, a war that has killed thousands of civilians and left over twenty million people in need of urgent humanitarian aid. While the presidential candidates argue about ISIS, the seeds of yet more conflict are being planted in Yemen, cluster bomb by cluster bomb.
In deciding which candidate to support for president, American Christians should reflect on this history. I believe that there are only two morally and strategically sound approaches to the Islamic State: Either 1) a full-scale military, economic, and humanitarian effort – much more intense than the occupation of Iraq – to destroy the Islamic State’s state, protect the people of the region, and bring some measure of peace and prosperity, or 2) a complete end to reckless military intervention in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and everywhere else in the Middle East, and a humanitarian commitment to refugees fleeing the Islamic State’s attacks. We need to either take responsibility or stay out.
At the moment, I do not see any candidate saying anything like this. For that reason, as someone who loves my Syrian and Iraqi friends dearly, I am not voting this year. Instead, I will pray for peace, donate my tithe to charities trying to help the victims of the Islamic State (like the organization I work for), and continue to speak out about these issues.
I respect my fellow citizens who feel the need to vote because of other important issues in this election. But please – don’t vote for someone just because they promise “to utterly destroy ISIS.” Odds are, they’re not going to.