In 1939, as the USSR made land grabs in Poland and Finland, Franklin Roosevelt declared that the Soviet Union was a "dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world" and called for an embargo. Not long after, when America entered the war, we were formally collaborating with Josef Stalin -- a man who had slaughtered one million of his own countrymen during the Great Purge of 1937-38. The lesson is that, when faced with an existential threat, you bring all parties to the table. Even bad people if you have to. Not just to coordinate the fight, but to coordinate post-war planning with all the players. You have to wonder where that wisdom is, today. Certainly it isn't coming from folks like Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Since the rise of the Islamic State, besides the United States and its western allies, three parties also faced an existential threat from the terror organization -- Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Shia Iranian regime (and its Shia ally, Iraq) and Russia. It was therefore abundantly clear -- to swiftly and decisively combat ISIS, it would take U.S. coordination with all parties. Yet, there was John McCain, just two months ago, slamming President Obama for even talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, let alone start the process of coordinating our two nations' responses to ISIS. "Ultimately, the proper response to Russia's actions in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere is not a tete-a-tete with Putin," McCain said. "It is a foreign policy that recognizes that peace requires U.S. strength and leadership, and a strategy to further our interests and values." In short, Putin's a bad guy, so don't work with him. Then, just one year ago, McCain and Graham wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "[U.S. airstrikes] are beginning to degrade the terrorist group, also known as ISIS, but will not destroy it, for one reason above all: The administration still has no effective policy to remove Bashar Assad from power and end the conflict in Syria." Bashar Assad? A brutal dictator, yes. But a brutal dictator who also faces a terminal threat from ISIS. A brutal dictator ready, willing and able to take the fight to ISIS. Yet, rather than recognize that Assad could be a temporary asset in the fight to defeat ISIS, McCain, Graham and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle continually muddied the fight, maintaining that we needed to send weaponry over to "Syrian moderates" to fight Assad, while refusing to speak with potential allies in this fight with ISIS, like Russia. Why? Because McCain and Graham simply had no understanding of who ISIS was, where they came from, or how there were no Syrian "moderates," just future ISIS fighters. "Mr. Assad all but created Islamic State through his slaughter of nearly 200,000 Syrians," the pair wrote. That's a fairly simplistic view of things. It ignores the role the invasion of Iraq played, as well as the regional proxy war between with the Saudis and Iranians. When I was in Iraq in 2011, ISIS was giving us problems in Iraq, under different names. Back in 2005, al-Nusra Front and and Al Qaeda in Iraq were one organization that worked on the Iraq-Syria border. ISIS grew out of that, and largely from our invasion of Iraq. So, no, despite what McCain and Graham think, Assad didn't create ISIS. They already existed under other names, primarily in response to our invasion of Iraq. Assad just gave them a new enemy to take on, organize and cause to grow around. And those so-called "Syrian moderates?" This year, the ones that McCain and Graham had identified, and whom we did send weapons to, quickly disbanded, with many giving their weapons to extremists. There was never a moderate partner on the ground, in Syria.
Long story short, D.C. armchair generals like McCain and Graham, and even some Democrats who share their view, have screwed this up long enough. It is time to reject their completely simplistic, two-dimensional thinking and do what we need to do. The gains we have made against ISIS have been limited, specifically on the Iraqi side. ISIS can't push further east because of Iranian backed militias in Shia communities, and they can't push further into Kurdish areas, because of the formidable Kurdish fighting force, the Peshmurga. There is a stalemate. A stalemate, however, still gives ISIS space to operate and coordinate attacks, like we've seen in Paris. Meanwhile, by trying to fight another battle against Bashar al-Assad, we've kept one of ISIS's mortal enemies at bay. Further, by refusing to truly work with Russia, we guarantee that our attacks are not as coordinated as they could be, and our strategy remains non-unified. That is not how you fight an existential threat. To strangle ISIS, we absolutely must put all other differences to the side, for the time being, and work with all partners around the world, against ISIS. Not bringing Putin, Assad and Iranians to the table, right now, would be like not bringing Stalin to Yalta.
Not only do they have an interest in and ability to help defeat ISIS, but they all are parties with a stake in what post-ISIS Syria looks like. Only a negotiated post-ISIS plan that includes all parties will have a chance at bringing stability to the region. Thankfully, it seems like Secretary of State John Kerry realizes this. A post-war Syria that doesn't include buy-in from those parties will be post-war Iraq on steroids, and a breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists. We are and have long been faced with an existential threat from the group that calls itself the Islamic State. It's time we act like it.