In that respect, confusing the Islamic State with other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or even Boko Haram is a dangerous misreading of the situation we face. The former groups engage in land disputes, religious and political struggles, and combat within a limited region. Moreover, regardless of how miserable they make their own people, they don’t pose a larger threat to the United States or Europe. While it breaks my heart to be unable to help the civilians they terrorize, it is true that we cannot be the world’s cop.
The Islamic State, however, is different. They are a dangerous threat to the West. Indeed, they are a threat from hell, as Samantha Powers aptly termed it in her book by that name. In fact, the Islamic State is making a rapid descent into the most terrifyingly sulphurous depth of hell.
They are murderously extreme, known for executing women and children, crucifying civilians, threatening grisly deaths to those who won’t convert to their brand of strict Islam, and often executing those who do convert anyway. They bring terror to civilian populations wherever they go.
And they have international ambitions to go far. According to a security briefing for journalists, as reported in the Washington Post, the Islamic State poses the greatest threat to the U.S. since al Qaeda right before it struck us on September 11, 2001.
“We have seen an expansion of its external terrorism ambitions” that parallel its aggressive moves in the Middle East, a senior U.S. intelligence official said at a briefing for reporters on the threat posed by the Islamic State ...
. . . The official said the organization has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including Western passport holders who now rank among its forces in Iraq. Some of its recruits from Europe are leaving with orders to go home and start cells, the official said ...
...U.S. intelligence officials said the group has grown rapidly in numbers and strength since taking control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June and noted that it is in position to bolster its substantial cash holdings with sales of oil.
The officials said that U.S. intelligence analysts are revising estimates of the group’s size and that it has grown substantially beyond the 10,000 or so fighters it had just several months agoTo be sure, the Islamic State does not have al Qaeda’s capability and technical expertise to launch an elaborate plot in the West yet. But the Islamic State is better funded and, more ominously, has attracted a steady stream of newly radicalized recruits from Western Europe and the U.S. who have western passports. Many of these new recruits have been instructed to set up cells when they return home.
It is also part of their philosophy and goal to expand their reach and spread Islam by the sword. So is expanding the caliphate, which the Islamic State’s leader, Abu al Bakr Baghdadi has already declared in Syria and Iraq.
This is a group to ignore at our own peril
The question is how to fight them successfully without our becoming mired in another full-scale conflict in Iraq, with the cost of more human life and treasure?
The answer lies in the realpolitik of the 1990s that both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton practiced. It was a pragmatic and strategic intervention where necessary, with short-term military operations that had clear goals and a clear exit strategy.
Here’s an example. Back in the early 90s, when Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait in a conflict that ultimately threatened to spill over into Saudi Arabia and other OPEC member nations, George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops into a limited operation to contain Hussein. Operation Desert Storm was a successful mission that gave Bush soaring approval ratings at home.
But a few disgruntled neo-cons within his own party grumbled that he did not finish the job. I actually disputed that at the time, asking the critics who they would have proposed leaving in power. The Shiites, with their Iranian allies? Or did they want to see the U.S. embroiled in a long, bloody occupation? Back then, most of Bush’s would-be critics remembered how dangerous the Shiite faction was and still remembered the lesson of Vietnam about avoiding nation building in places where we don’t understand the local culture.
This strategy served Bush well in Desert Storm and later on was successful for Clinton in Kosovo. We went in, fixed what was fixable, and got out. When regional enemies could not be stopped from battling among themselves, we left them to do so as long their conflict did not threaten either our allies or our nation. And as long as their human rights violations were not too egregious to ignore.
Many people don't like realpolitik. It falls far short of their grand ambitions to see Western-style democracy bloom all over the world. Its aims are much more modest. It is pragmatic about what can and should be accomplished, which is to limit regional conflicts and to stay out of them when possible. And to limit their spread when they become a larger threat especially to our national interests.
We need our military to be involved in far fewer places. Not everybody’s battle is our battle. But if aggressive interventionism is dangerous, so is isolationism. The world is a smaller place than it used to be, more easily accessible by modern transportation. Moreover, the only way to stop the problem from hell from coming to our borders is to stop it at the Middle East’s borders. That is why we need to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant before their extremists export their caliphate ambitions and their terrorist threats from reaching us.