A Smackdown on ISIS... Over Pizza

What to do about ISIS? My previous post referred to the reasons for the group's rise; this post speaks to what can, or cannot be done about it... from two perspectives. Let me explain. Professor Robert Bosco, also at Centre College, host once-a-semester "Badie-Bosco Smackdown" - as part of a broader "Pizza and Politics" series - that speak to controversial international issues of the day. We believe that civic engagement is imperative for healthy political discourse that goes beyond party affiliation or electoral concerns. The events have become quite popular with Centre students, who enjoy getting beyond meaningless punditry that cannot help but reduce every issue - down to Ebola - to what it means for the next election.

So here's how our debate went:

Badie: Resolving the problem with ISIS requires working with unpopular states: namely, Syria and Iran, to make this a regional, rather than American, issue.

Bosco: The US should lead a coalition of partners - rather than enemies - in its fight against ISIS. Working with Iran and Syria is a bad idea.

Badie: Syria and Iran are both frightened by the growth and spread of ISIS. First, both are of the Shi'a strain of Islam while ISIS is an extremist Sunni group. There is a sectarian element here. But more importantly, the civil war in Syria means that the Assad regime is already fighting ISIS. At the same time, Syria is Iran's closest ally in the region, and Rouhani's regime does not want to see Assad fall. There is no point in fighting ISIS in a way that undermines Assad's parallel efforts to eliminate the group. This does not mean that the US must forever accept and align with Iran and Syria; however, it does mean that, in the short-run, ISIS is a bigger threat to American and Middle East security.

Bosco: Syria and Iran are not our enemies, or at least, they are not destined to be. Still, it is bad geopolitics to work with them on ISIS. It will give both an opportunity to call in a favor down the road. Negotiations over Iran's nuclear arrangements are going well--don't complicate the matter further by handing them another card to play. Second, working with Assad against ISIS will muddle US policy in Syria even further. How can we expect Assad's cooperation while assisting and arming the moderate rebels who are trying to overthrow him? Finally, working with Iran and Syria to defeat ISIS will entrench the hard-liners in Israel even further, just as the US, UK, and EU are trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Israel is digging in its heels when the US so much as hints at talking to Iran--we've seen this before. The US needs to do what it can to take out ISIS. So work with the Turks, but not Syria and Iran.

Badie: Let's be honest with ourselves. There is no chance of successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the Likud Party in power in Israel and Hamas controlling Gaza. There is currently no prospect for peace, so there is nothing to undermine. In terms of Iran, a temporary partnership could work in our favor. Rather than impeding nuclear diplomacy, working together against ISIS would help alleviate Iranian fears that the West is out to get them (which is part of the reason why they want nuclear weapons). Finally, working with "moderate" Syrian rebels (which won't begin for months) is counterproductive. Just because it is already our policy, doesn't mean that it's a good one. These rebels are fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime (who is also fighting ISIS). Why undermine the Syrian military's ability to target ISIS? They certainly have the best intelligence on the group's whereabouts and strongholds. Additionally, there is no reason why Assad would "call in a favor" later. Eliminating ISIS would be a personal victory given that the radical group is fighting the Syrian regime. If anything, it would give the US a little more clout in that we helped to defeat one of Assad's enemies. But most importantly, this policy means that we can move to a regional solution. We have imposed our solutions on the Middle East enough times.

Bosco: It's too late. The US is already arming and supporting the Syrian rebels. Taking out ISIS frees Assad to battle the very moderate rebels we are arming against him. In fact, recent news articles suggest this is exactly what is going on. Of course he will want to work with us to crush ISIS. We don't need Syria for the intelligence. We are conducting airstrikes against ISIS right now without intelligence from the Syrian military, and ISIS has been pushed back, at least for now, from the Turkish border. Agreed, if Assad calls in a favor later, that's the nature of global politics. But the U.S. can't have it both ways, and the last thing the U.S. needs in the Middle East is more inconsistency and muddled policy. This will only endanger the progress that's being made so far, especially with Iran and the nuclear issue.

... and so it went for a full hour, over pizza. These events are part of what make the liberal arts environment at Centre so fulfilling for both professors and students. It's not about who won the debate, but about being able to have it.