As the election moves into its final phase, expect candidates to raise the shibboleth of the Islamic State and argue vehemently over who is best able to keep America safe from it. Unfortunately, this important security debate will probably not be based on dispassionate consideration of the facts but on an exaggeration of the threat, a misunderstanding of its nature, and a misguided notion of how to counter it.
Critics of the Obama administration insist that the ISIS is growing stronger because Washington has not been aggressive enough in attacking the terrorists in Syria and Iraq. They point to the wave of attacks in Europe, the San Bernardino shootings, and the Orlando night club massacre as compelling evidence that more strident military measures must be employed against this pernicious organization. "Bomb the [expletive deleted] out of Raqqa (the self-proclaimed Islamic State capital)," they insist, "and the problem will go away." It is a highly seductive, feel-good argument but one that does not stand up to close scrutiny.
To begin with, ISIS is a problem not an existential threat. The attacks in Europe have as much to do with the ghettoization of its immigrant populations and lack of opportunity for young Muslim men as it does with foreign terrorism. The Orlando massacre was the work of a profoundly disturbed young man struggling with his own identity that latched on to radical Islamist ideology as an outlet for his rage. Background checks for fire arm purchases and better access to mental health will do far more to prevent attacks of that sort than lobbing cruise missile into Syria.
San Bernardino was a genuine ISIS-inspired terrorist attack but one perpetrated by lone wolves acting without direction from anyone in the organization. That attack and others like it, including the rampage in Nice, reveal an uncomfortable truth about the Islamic State: it is a complex phenomenon with many dimensions, and it cannot be defeated with a single, narrowly focused strategy. It exists as a shadow state, a global terrorist network and a broad ideological movement.
Destroying the shadow state in the Middle East will not eliminate the network or the ideology. In fact, the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe that began last Fall correlate fairly closely with ISIS reversals in Syria and Iraq. The more the U.S. and its allies squeeze the Islamic State at home, the more it lashes out abroad. As was the case with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, foreign Mujahedeen are returning to their countries of origin to continue the struggle.
Defeating ISIS requires a comprehensive, long haul strategy that combats the threat at all levels. Military force plays a role but it must be employed carefully. Invading Iraq helped to create the problem; invading Syria will hardly fix it. Focused airstrikes, direct action by Special Forces and assistance to regional allies is producing results and with fewer adverse effects than would an increased U.S. presence in the Middle East. Countering radicalization and degrading the ISIS network is just as important as attacking the parent organization and requires painstaking efforts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world.
There are no easy answers to difficult questions, no quick fixes to complex problems. So when voters go to the poles in November, they should keep in mind the old German saying, "fear is a bad counselor." The Germans certainly understand better than any other people on earth how dangerous it is when leaders manipulate fear to gain power.