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.
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Thank you Joel. It’s nice to read an informed opinion on this issue.
Wow! Thanks Joel for this educational piece. You probably are right that the next president will not destroy Isis. Unless Jesus returns soon, there will be a next president. I think you ought to vote and then influence that president is every way possible with your perspective on the middle east.
Thank you, Joel, for your thoughtful analysis. Wouldn’t it be better to vote for the person who is more closely aligned with your opinion or who might be open to changing her opinion than to simply abstain? David Schelhaas
Thank you so much for an informative article. Shedding light onto the darkness known as ISIS, the newest incarnation of middle east violence. I beg to differ from your position of “do nothing.” In this broken world, there is often times no “right and just” answer. We must destroy ISIS because it is evil. It does not fix the Middle East, Syria or Iraq, but it does give the people there another chance to get together and make a peaceful alliance. As far as not voting, please vote. We may not even stand with the same political candidates, but I want you to go and choose the Man or Woman that you believe God has called to the position of President.
Joel radically underestimates the necessary troop strength given by military experts: 1.5-2.5 MILLION troops in the current 3:1 rotation (1/3 in the field, 1/3 prepping to deploy, 1/3 out) to sustain two medium-sized campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US has been timidly kicking around the pieces of the countries it has ruined for 15 years now. If we wanted to fight a real war to the finish, it would compare to Viet Nam in force strength and casualties when we fielded half a million men in SE Asia.
But now we can use women too. Start the draft!
I’m too old to go, and I’ll never see the bills. Those will fall to a small US workforce with at least twice as many retirees as workers.
The current bill for the war on IS is approaching $8 Billion. Not so bad.
But we still have tabs open in Afghanistan (more than $726 Billion) and Iraq ($820 Billion) — and counting.
Grand Total for all war bills since 2001: $1.666 TRILLION as of today.
Every hour, taxpayers in the United States are paying $8.36 million….
Good luck Millenials!
Anthony, I don’t know where you’re getting your numbers, but 2.5 million is roughly 5x the total number of soldiers in the US Army (active only). No one is planning or talking about a military operation with an Army we haven’t had since Vietnam.
The reality is that no amount of soldiers will destroy Da’esh.
Major, US Army (ret)
Exactly the point. This is why we fail. We do not have a real war-fighting capacity. Those numbers come from several generals. Col. Bacevitch has discussed them in his many articles and books.
Thank you very much for this article, and I’m glad that Dordt brought it to my attention. I have my political views and ideologies, but when it comes to foreign policy, my only ideology is to follow the loving example of Christ, and I don’t have any strategy that I feel loyal to, although I do tend to think that one has to have a comprehensive plan that they can completely commit themselves to, one with a definitive end in sight, i.e. I think that we should only take actions with outcomes that we can predict, and when we’ve essentially won before we’ve even begun.
As far as I can tell, the two options you see are the only ones that seem plausible and moral. Your observations have really confirmed this, and sadly it also increases my awareness of just how little faith I can truly put in my political leaders (it’s a misplaced faith from the very start, but my ignorance can at times be bliss). It’s unfortunate that so much our military strategy has to do with politics; in any case, we may be unfortunate no matter what, since we live in a fallen world. Hopefully the light that you shed on this issue makes a difference, though. If enough people truly understand what’s going on in the Middle East, maybe politicians will appeal less to their emotions and actually follow a stronger strategy such as one of these.
In the meantime, I realize now just how important your final advice is. I have completely neglected prayer in my approach to foreign affairs in general and the Middle East in particular. May God strengthen me to be persistent and humble in this endeavor. And it most certainly is humbling.
Soli Deo Gloria,
John T. Hooyer
Joel, I appreciate the insight provided by this article. May I most respectfully suggest that elections are about choosing the best candidates to lead our respective countries on many and diverse issues. Foreign/international affairs is but one of these issues. Voting is such an important right and responsibility. I do hope you will change your mind about not voting in the upcoming election and listen to what the candidates are saying about some of the other issues that are critical to the foundation of a strong and economically healthy country.
Thank you, all, for reading and for your kind comments. I find it interesting that, apparently, the most provocative thing I said in my article was not, “The U.S.’ current war is mostly phony and will stay that way,” but, “I’m not going to vote.” Finding out that something you’ve said has struck a chord is always exciting. 🙂 So in response to some of your great questions, I’d like to unpack that a little further.
Most of the problems with U.S. foreign policy I tried to point out – our deadly alliance with Saudi Arabia, our drive to counter Iran and Russia wherever we can, regardless of the consequences, our penchant for intervening militarily or covertly without regard for the impact on ordinary people’s lives – have remained constant for almost forty years, if not longer, no matter who was president. There have been changes in U.S. Middle East policy, yes, but these have been driven by events, not by who’s in the White House. In other words, the problem is not (only) that we’ve been voting for the wrong people, but that the people we vote for are put in charge of a system that they are powerless or unwilling to change, and anyone who might change things doesn’t get the political and financial backing they need to run in the first place.
In a situation like this, where the odds that voting will change things for the better are 0%, voting can be worse than useless. It creates the illusion that we are working for change, when all we’re really doing is putting our stamp on a rotten set of institutions and policies. My conviction is, if my government is going to continue to destroy my friends’ lives no matter how I vote, then they can do it without my vote. As I said, I greatly respect people who vote based on their hope that their candidate will make a difference in some other area, but I personally am too close to the Middle East situation to turn a blind eye to these issues.
This is NOT a call for apathy, but a call to rethink how we are working for political change. There are things we can do besides vote, and we need to be looking hard at them.
People DO see political options on this issue. The Pauls have been enormously popular with military personnel and veterans. Now Trump is too. In different ways they support the old right’s nativist, isolationist nationalism and favor letting Russia and Middle Eastern countries assert themselves more against ISIS and in the middle east / central asia. They do not want to be in the Great Game of great powers pursuing control of this central region. The European and American far right’s views on Muslims, sexual minorities, and sometimes women all align with Putin’s form of white patriarchal Christian nationalism. Certain midwestern US Representatives increasingly align with this point of view and adopt the rhetoric of the reawakening European nationalist parties. And on the anti-imperialist left you can find a similar “isolationism” that does not come with these kinds of repressive, authoritarian domestic agendas. it is only the neoconservative/neoliberal “center” of so-called “moderates” who seek to maintain the cold war hegemony of an American-led “West” against “the rest” because it is so profitable to federal and financial elites.