“My children,” President Franklin Roosevelt pronounced in his fatherly way in November 1942, “it is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” It was an old Balkan proverb. The bridge of his time was the war against Nazism — barbarism without limit — allied with imperial Japan, which was carrying out an Asian holocaust of its own. The devil, that day, was Vichy France. At the price of reaching an accord with collaborator Francois Darlan, Roosevelt purchased the cooperation of French forces in North Africa, an important shift in the ground campaign.
The principle is clear but painful. In a supreme emergency, when battling a force of exceptional barbarity, it is prudent to make the moral compromise of bargaining with the allies that are available. Even if the costs of trafficking with “the enemy of my enemy” are steep. Today, proverbs about lesser evils bear repeating as the luckless people of Syria and Iraq feel the Islamic State’s blade.
I am not about to argue for an alliance or anti-Islamic State coalition with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran, or even eventually with the puritanical Taliban or the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Those arguments are already being made elsewhere. Instead, I offer an argument for thinking harder about the nature of the choices posed by the Islamic State challenge and the relation of words and deeds.
To review the situation: Last year, with conspicuous ease, thousands of Islamic State fighters routed an army expensively equipped and trained by the United States, seized a large arsenal of weaponry, captured Iraq’s second largest city, and carved out a theocratic state straddling Syria and Mesopotamia. Their sociology and motives are endlessly debated. But a glance at reports from Amnesty International and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicates that there isn’t much these puritans and Sunni supremacists won’t do in their bid to restore the seventh century, or their version of it. Slaughtering unbelievers and minorities, enslaving women, beheading aid workers, crucifying children, and destroying archaeological heritage all mark the Islamic State out as gratuitously cruel even by the standards of sectarian violence in the region. It marries these malign intentions with the capabilities of a state.
After a campaign of air strikes, international training of regional forces, an attempt to identify and support Syrian opposition moderates in the West, and a series of offensives from indigenous ground forces, the Islamic State is still there. It is reportedly depleted of some of its best talent, and according to the CIA, the net result of the campaigns against the Islamic State has been to blunt its momentum. However, this assessment came shortly before the Islamic State stormed Ramadi. And “blunting momentum” was a phrase President Obama also used to defend the fragile gains made against the Taliban. All signs indicate that, at this tempo, the Islamic State will endure for some time to come.
According to policymakers in the two countries leading the international effort to counter the Islamic State, this new caliphate is a dire security problem for First World countries far away. For a spokesman of Secretary of State John Kerry, the Islamic State’s “rapid growth … particularly in ungoverned spaces” is an “existential threat.” For British Prime Minister David Cameron, it represents a “poisonous death cult” that poses an “existential threat.” UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon linked it to the last occasion when his country faced a threat to its sovereign independence, “the new Battle of Britain” against “a fascist enemy.” President Obama has been more circumspect, and his vow “to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” implies a greater time horizon and limitation on the conflict.
Unlike Roosevelt, today’s policymakers deploy high moral diction without recognizing the dilemmas that come with it. They use the rhetoric of rollback, branding the Islamic State as an existential threat that must be smashed. But in their actions, they adopt a more limited and hesitant mixture of policies more suited to a containment strategy. Judged by leaders’ words, the Islamic State is intolerable. Judged by the same leaders’ deeds, it is a lesser threat requiring less urgent measures that can be patiently and gradually ground down.
Whatever the reasons for this awkward pose, it is wearing thin. You don’t have to be an international relations scholar to notice the dissonance between Fallon’s likening of the war to the Battle of Britain and the modest commitment of eight Tornado jets to the struggle, supplemented by drones. If we are to believe that this is a fight for all we hold most dear, it is little wonder that the former Chief of the Defence Staff draws the logical conclusion that the West must put “tens of thousands” of trainers on the ground, and fast: “If you want to get rid of them we need to effectively get on a war footing.”
But the war footing has been mostly rhetorical. Deploying the language of a major war to defend civilization, Washington and London won’t entertain the possibility of a devil’s bargain that such a desperate struggle requires. Or at least, not beyond a very cautious, covert and limited collaboration or “de-confliction” that hardly fits the intensity that “existential” war suggests.
Just how dangerous is the Islamic State? For the fearful, it is a worldwide magnet to disaffected and reckless youth. By capturing Mosul, it has seized command of a sanctuary of sorts, and material resources that al Qaeda could only dream of. It threatens to be a regional wrecker, further destabilizing its neighborhood and inspiring attacks on civilians at home and abroad. Statehood remains a powerful platform and spoil of war, as it confers the abilities to govern, to tax, to levy troops, to make laws. The problem is not “ungoverned space,” as Prime Minister Cameron and others in the security–development nexus like to say. The Islamic State does not “under-govern.” It governs territory a great deal. It does not need a state patron, unlike its competitors in the jihadi marketplace. It is one.
But is it actually an existential threat? “Existential” assumes that the threatened referent object is just that: one’s existence. Does the Islamic State really threaten the survival of a superpower and its allies? It’s a subject for another article, but the judgement is overblown. Does it represent a threat to continued life in the United States and allied countries in Europe, Asia or North America? This is doubtful. Despite the agony of its victims and the menace of chronic, low-level violence, it’s not clear that the Islamic State could serially carry out mass casualty violence in Western homelands, especially now that it has the attention of security services. On that measure, the Islamic State is a less pressing threat to America than unhinged people bearing arms with more local grievances. The Islamic State may only really be a threat to our way of life to the extent that we allow it to bait us into over-reaction, provoking a panic that leads to the further erosion of civil liberties, and the criminalization of the very act of thinking aloud about the issue. But if that is the main threat, the Islamic State can be best met through restrained counter-measures and forbearance, rather than ranking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the league of Adolf Hitler.
There is also a decent argument that the threat of the Islamic State is pretty bounded, and that time is ultimately working against it. It has attracted an impressive array of enemies around the belt of territory it commands. Its ability to operate faces increasing military pressure. Its resource base is shrinking under sustained assault, as bombardment has dramatically reduced its oil revenue, hostages are less available, and archaeological treasures are a finite resource. It does not have the ability to maintain the sophisticated weaponry it captured, with little access to spare parts for artillery and light armored vehicles. Hitching its currency to the gold standard is an inauspicious move (although one possibly watched jealously by some American libertarians). For the Islamic State, the clock is ticking. Therefore, so the argument goes, it can be contained, so that it weakens to the point where it can be dismantled.
If this argument is true, the unravelling of the Islamic State will be very gradual. Containment strategies demand a degree of threat-tolerance and patience. The current piecemeal strategy also suggests a level of buck-passing, of attempting to get Gulf States to shoulder a greater share of the burden and to get the state of Iraq to deal with the problem that is partly its own creation. But to frame the Islamic State in this way, as a non-trivial threat that can be co-existed with in the medium term while it is gradually ground down, is to measure it as significantly less dangerous than a first-order threat, making its defeat sound less imminently urgent than Western leaders’ rhetoric suggests. Containment entails a degree of tolerance and the belief that time is on one’s side. “Existential threat” does not, suggesting a level of urgency and fighting against the clock.
Western governments talk of the Islamic State as a singular evil with which co-existence is impossible. But they won’t follow their verdict to its moral and geopolitical conclusion. Ultimately, the Islamic State controls and governs territory. It shows little sign of retiring or moderating. If it really must be treated as an urgent threat, it can only be defeated on the ground. Unless the United States and its Western allies are willing to shoulder this burden themselves, someone else must do it. That “someone else” is likely to be an actor, or a coalition of actors, we find unattractive, whose manners offend us. Given the mixed blessings of allies in the Gulf, so the argument goes, it is time to get serious about the states that have the will and the capability to roll the Islamic State. Since Western governments are reluctant to send in forces en masse to retake ground, only a combined arms campaign in close cooperation with the lesser evils of Iran and Syria and their ground forces can do the job.
To defeat it, someone will have to mount a credible, effective, and sustained ground campaign to recapture the ground it has taken. It is not a diffuse terrorist network that can be suppressed and broken up by a combination of special forces, intelligence, and police. It is not a beleaguered insurgency sheltering in caves or jungles that its opponents can marginalize through the smack of government. It is a state, backed by armed forces of at least 20,000 fighters (at conservative estimates) that commands major urban centres.
Of course, Anglo-American strategy does envisage that someone does the fighting. But it does so unrealistically. It waits in vain for the emergence of an inclusive, multi-confessional Iraqi state that overcomes sectarian divisions, reconciles with disaffected Sunni tribes and militias, and teams up with them to do the ground fighting. This may happen, but experience suggests it will not happen at our timetable. To hope otherwise is to fancy that the centrifugal, sectarian forces unleashed since 2003 can somehow be quickly overcome at our convenience. They cannot. The Islamic State is partly a product of Sunni alienation against an oppressive Shiite ascendancy in Baghdad, one that was hard enough to tame with troops on the ground, and harder still to constrain from without. The counter-offensive against the Islamic State has in fact provided occasion for a sectarian purge and dispossession of Sunni communities in Iraq. We can call for a grand constitutional settlement in Iraq that will reconcile the alienated and build a common front. But the wait may be a while. In the absence of such a political breakthrough, we must live with the world (and its correlation of forces) as it is, not as we want it to be.
Lesser measures — training, weapons transfers — are less expensive and less likely to produce blowback, but also less reliable. One would have thought that the combined experience of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya would have pressed home the realization that it is extremely difficult for outside powers to shape politics on the ground in their favor. One would think that by now, we would realize that attempts to promote the forces of good with injections of cash and arms often has tragic unintended consequences, and that it is maddeningly difficult to identify and vet, let alone control, indigenous forces we think we can live with.
If limited measures are unsatisfactory, this means that someone else will have to do the ground fighting. Western airpower, it is hoped, can act as a hammer against the anvil of ground forces, forcing Islamic State fighters either to disperse to be picked off, or to concentrate and present themselves as targets. But who is to act as the anvil? This is where the picture turns dark. As things stand, in the absence of sufficient numbers of Sunni forces, it will have to be Iranian-backed militias and proxies, including those of Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi Shiites. And this is where we can truly test how serious we are about the Islamic State’s exceptional barbarity and how willing we are to walk with the devil. If the Islamic State really is so bad and dangerous, then we ought to be willing to traffic with lesser evils to defeat it, even if that means our complicity in the crimes and abuses they will carry out under the cloak of war. The recent nuclear deal and the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran may signal possibilities for cooperation, but this does not moderate the manners of Assad or Iran’s proxies, and does not guarantee that its bid for hegemony is over.
If, on the other hand, we judge these forces beyond the pale, then we need to return to the basic issue of how to define the problem. The question, then, is something like this: Is the Islamic State so threatening, is coexistence with it even for just a few years so unacceptable, that we should compromise with other regimes to defeat it, no matter how unattractive they are?
If not, is the problem therefore different in its nature? Is the Islamic State, for all its barbarism, one of just many threats in the region that, in the absence of a strong force of moderation, we hope will at least check and counter-balance each other?
It will sound outlandish to say so today, but it is not historically absurd to envisage a future where the Islamic State in some form survives and becomes a political reality that the West must find ways to live with. One day, we may see it as one check upon Iran and its clients, or more accurately, both as counterweights that bleed one another. After all, some, like Gen. David Petraeus, do not rank the Islamic State as the supreme threat, arguing that Iran poses a greater long-term problem for Iraq. It is Iran, empowered by the vacuum opened in Iraq, that has consolidated and expanded its power in the region. And it is Iran’s complex, polycentric political system that throws up radicals from time to time, and radicals with nuclear ambitions. American strategy in the Gulf has realigned before. Were the Islamic State to enjoy longevity, who is to say that unexpected realignments could not take place once again?
How to judge and counter this threat is especially difficult for Western policymakers, because of the worldview they articulate. To hear Obama or Cameron tell it, and the wider foreign policy establishment around them, the world is not one of compromise and dilemmas, but one of rules and norms, one where absolute moral values and material interests are one. We cannot know how much this language is intended for performance, but it does breed an innocent hope that a “legitimate” and inoffensive force will turn up that we can do business with, and which will do the fighting and dying on the ground.
The issue of compromise, and which devil to dance with, cannot be dodged forever. Word games will not do. Some liberal sophisticates would like the problem to be one of nomenclature, focusing debate on what to call the Islamic State, a narcissistic conceit that its legitimacy derives from what Western observers name it long after the fact of its spectacular conquests. Propaganda matters, but historically draws its force from experienced realities. The Islamic State did not tweet its way into Mosul and will not be narrated out, at least not without some strategic success to make propaganda credible.
Other progressive minds like to view the problem through the prism of Western aid, framing a determined fighting opponent as a problem that can be “developed” away. How they would extend a competing model of good governance into Islamic State’s tightly controlled territories is not clear. Indeed the Islamic State is partly the by-product of a protracted and botched state-building effort in Iraq in the first place.
The question of the Islamic State brings together two contradictory tendencies: the deployment of absolute rhetoric from 20th-century total war with the 21st-century urge to wage such a war on the cheap and without dilemmas. Over a year into this incoherent campaign, it’s time to rethink this odd imbalance. The mismatch of words and deeds betrays a deeper confusion about the nature of our security interests. Either the Islamic State is a supreme emergency, warranting otherwise unthinkable bargains with lesser evils, ultimately at the price of supporting a shift in the balance of power in the Gulf. Or it is not, and the real threat is that imbalance rather than one malign actor. Either way, after a year of big words and modest deeds, a cooler assessment is due.
Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter. He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.