Subduing ISIS With a New Model of Governance


The awful terrorist attacks in Paris have triggered greater commitment to war in the U.S. and Europe. The allies intend to double down on their military strategy after more than a year of bombing.

Unfortunately, doing more of the same is likely to have the same effect. Instead, the West needs to promote a new model of governance which offers people in the Middle East dignity and prosperity.

The U.S. is, and long has been, the dominant influence in the Middle East, but Washington's power to shape events has declined dramatically. For decades, America allied itself with authoritarian regimes to keep order. That effort finally collapsed with the arrival of President Barack Obama and the onset of the Arab Spring.

In Egypt, the Mubarak dictatorship was replaced by the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood/Morsi interregnum, which was soon succeeded by the ever more repressive Sisi dictatorship. Sisi, the leader Republican candidates can't love enough, is a malignant presence in the region. And it's not just the Republicans. The Obama administration agreeably provides enormous amounts of aid and weapons to Cairo. Unfortunately, the new dictator is behaving like the old one, arresting everyone from Muslim Brotherhood members to liberals and applying military solutions to political problems. As a result, Egypt is sliding back toward instability.

Facing rising popular dissatisfaction, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies continue to seek to buy off their angry youth populations. Riyadh sacrificed regional peace with its ideological rival Iran, dragging other states, involving the U.S. into its pointless and immoral conflict in Yemen. Moreover, The House of Saud sought to undermine Washington's nuclear negotiations with Tehran; and it continues to sustain by proxy and subtle ideological maneuver elements of power within the Islamic State.

To the north, Turkey slides toward regressive Islamism and oppressive authoritarianism. Along the way, it has aided the rise of ISIS and renewed its devastating attacks on Kurdish forces fighting ISIS -- renewing questions about Turkey's real position regarding ISIS. The Kurds have long been America's best friend in the region; Washington relies on their Peshmerga to take point against the Islamic State. Yet, President Obama still treats them like the red-headed step-child.

In Iraq, Libya and Syria the U.S. ousted or seeks to oust unfriendly and autocratic regimes. The result in each case has been continuously aggravating difficulty, destabilization and destruction. Let's be honest: the Islamic State is an outgrowth from the invasion of Iraq.

But Bush doesn't bear all the fault for regional collapse. Overthrowing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi with no stabilization plan prepared (repeating Bush's mortal sin) created a vacuum in Libya increasingly filled by radicals, including ISIS, one that led to the death of an American Ambassador. Promoting the overthrow of Bashar Assad discouraged a negotiated settlement and weakened the military force most capable of containing the Islamic State.

Today, Washington appears to Middle East powers to be retreating under the pressure of indecision and stalemate, as it seeks to strengthen the ragged coalition still fighting ISIS. But President Obama's coalition looks like Bush's: the U.S. plus a few.

In the wake of a failed policy (to create a unified and empowered Middle East fighting ISIS), Washington and its allies now must find a new approach. Arabs want governments that respect personal dignity, protect their individual liberty and provide them economic opportunity. The old tactics of dictators insinuating fear and division to preserve stability and prevent terrorism no longer works.

The Middle East needs a new paradigm of governance, a model that encourages all peoples to participate politically in hope of achieving a better future, that is, a true Arab Spring. This vision must reject dominant ideology -- whether Islamism, Baathism, Pan Arabism, anti-Semitism -- in favor of genuinely democratic and legal processes. Only a move toward systemic Justice will attract those who today see death, terrorism, and war as their only hope.

The Middle East is not the first region to face such a challenge. Last century Europe went through two horrid conflicts separated by barely a generation. The result was overwhelming slaughter, destruction, and despair. Only a new political path could rebuild the continent based on peace and prosperity. Europeans finally discarded the many destructive isms which before had dominated politics, most notably communism, fascism, militarism, and nationalism. A more liberal, tolerant, and cooperative ethos emerged to guide the continent's reconstruction.

Only a similar revival in the Mideast can "drain the swamp," so to speak. The process must start with those living in the region. People must demand that their leaders allow them to mold their own futures and build political structures which offer dignity and opportunity to all.

The West must help advance this vision. It should support real stability arising out of governmental structures that are accountable, transparent, and competent. The U.S. and its allies need not attempt to impose any particular political system, party, or person on any government. Rather, Washington should insist that authorities serve their peoples fairly, irrespective of religious belief, partisan allegiance, or ethnic background.

After decades of involvement in the Middle East the U.S. and its allies continue to face the problem of terrorism. Past experience suggests that more intense military action cannot substitute for a political solution. Only a dramatic break from the past will provide an answer for the Mideast today. Aristotle said habit is destiny. The Middle East needs new political habits or its destiny will be perdition.

Yassin K. Fawaz is Chief Executive of the Raddington Group, a DC based risk management firm. He is experienced in counterterrorism and intelligence, and frequently has provided strategic advice to Middle Eastern leaders.