The Long War

Sustainability should guide America’s strategy against Islamic extremism.

An Islamic gunman walks past a pick up truck belonging to the "Raqa Regional Public Service" headed by the Islamic State (IS) group loaded with the wreckage of a Syrian government forces aircraft which was shot down by IS' militants over the Syrian town of Raqa on September 16, 2014. The plane crashed into a house in the Euphrates Valley city, the sole provincial capital entirely out of Syrian government control, causing deaths and injuries on the ground, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
March 6, 2015, midnight

Over its his­tory, the United States has only rarely faced a for­eign threat that per­sisted for a gen­er­a­tion or longer. Con­flict with Great Bri­tain flared for roughly four dec­ades after the Re­volu­tion­ary War. The Cold War with the So­viet Uni­on las­ted nearly 45 years.

An Is­lam­ic gun­man walks past a pickup truck be­long­ing to the “Raqa Re­gion­al Pub­lic Ser­vice,” which is headed by the Is­lam­ic State, loaded with the wreck­age of a Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces air­craft. (STR/AFP/Getty Im­ages)All evid­ence in­dic­ates that the struggle against rad­ic­al Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ism is destined to join this short list of pro­longed chal­lenges. The fact that the Is­lam­ic State co­alesced so quickly after al-Qaida weakened sug­gests the rise of rad­ic­al groups is driv­en as much by de­mand as sup­ply: So long as there is a crit­ic­al mass of re­cruits sym­path­et­ic to ji­hadist ideo­logy, an or­gan­iz­a­tion will emerge to mo­bil­ize them. If we des­troy IS­IS, something re­sem­bling it will prob­ably re­sur­face soon­er rather than later — ab­sent an im­prob­able trans­form­a­tion of at­ti­tudes among the rad­ic­al­ized minor­ity in the Muslim world.

Yet nearly 14 years after the 9/11 at­tacks, Amer­ica’s polit­ic­al lead­er­ship re­mains far from agree­ment on a sus­tain­able strategy for en­ga­ging with this con­flict. The con­trast with the Cold War is telling. Des­pite dif­fer­ences in em­phas­is, this far in­to the Cold War, both U.S. polit­ic­al parties had largely ac­cep­ted the over­rid­ing strategy of con­tain­ment. Today, the parties are split over how to re­spond to Is­lam­ic rad­ic­al­ism, and even over what to call it. Noth­ing bet­ter il­lus­trated this di­vide than the gap­ing par­tis­an fis­sure over Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s speech to Con­gress on Tues­day, de­noun­cing Pres­id­ent Obama’s on­go­ing nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an.

Amer­ica is bit­terly di­vided over the threat of Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ism partly be­cause we are now bit­terly di­vided over al­most everything. But the im­passe also re­flects dis­ap­point­ment with the ini­tial re­sponses by pres­id­ents from each party.

George W. Bush’s do­mest­ic an­ti­ter­ror­ism ar­chi­tec­ture has largely sur­vived, with some re­as­sess­ments by Obama. But the dis­il­lu­sion­ing res­ults in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq dis­cred­ited Bush’s vis­ion of a “glob­al war on ter­ror” powered by U.S. mil­it­ary force. Obama un­der­stand­ably re­coiled from those fail­ures. But even some Demo­crat­ic thinkers be­lieve he has over­cor­rec­ted, both by down­play­ing the depth of the rad­ic­al threat and by overly lim­it­ing Amer­ica’s role in re­spond­ing to it. “Obama has been im­prisoned by the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan ex­per­i­ence,” main­tains Will Mar­shall, pres­id­ent of the Pro­gress­ive Policy In­sti­tute, a cent­rist Demo­crat­ic group. “You have to pick your fights care­fully “¦ but just stay­ing out of a con­flict is no guar­an­tee that you’re go­ing to es­cape worse con­sequences.” Crit­ics like Mar­shall be­lieve that the United States has been forced to pur­sue great­er mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion against IS­IS now partly be­cause it failed to sup­port a mod­er­ate Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion earli­er.

The dis­ap­point­ment with both pres­id­ents shows how del­ic­ate the dance can be between in­ter­ven­tion and re­straint — par­tic­u­larly in a gen­er­a­tion­al struggle that un­folds across many fronts, in ever-evolving forms. In eval­u­at­ing those dif­fi­cult choices, the best com­pass is to seek in our strategy what Cold War thinkers called “solvency”: a sus­tain­able bal­ance between the na­tion’s ends and means.

It’s against the yard­stick of solvency that Net­an­yahu’s speech most con­spicu­ously failed. The prime min­is­ter iden­ti­fied ad­mir­able goals: dis­mant­ling Ir­an’s urani­um-en­rich­ment ca­pa­city and trans­form­ing its re­gime. But he offered no plaus­ible means to achieve them. He sug­ges­ted that tough sanc­tions coupled with the threat of force would even­tu­ally cause Ir­an to buckle. But sanc­tions alone haven’t stopped oth­er na­tions from pur­su­ing the bomb — or hal­ted Ir­an’s own ad­vances. Even air strikes would only delay Tehran’s ef­forts. Be­sides, there is little Amer­ic­an ap­pet­ite for any mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Ir­an “while we have our hands full against IS­IS,” Mar­shall notes.

Even with strin­gent veri­fic­a­tion re­quire­ments, any achiev­able nuc­le­ar agree­ment would con­tain and de­fer rather than elim­in­ate the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar threat. There’s risk in reach­ing such a deal. But the evid­ence sug­gests there is great­er risk in fail­ing to do so. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s best ar­gu­ment is that op­pon­ents like Net­an­yahu have not offered any achiev­able al­tern­at­ive that could stall Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram for nearly as long as the 10 years or more Obama is seek­ing in an agree­ment. While Net­an­yahu wouldn’t say so, the sweep­ing goals he iden­ti­fied likely could be achieved only by a full-scale mil­it­ary in­va­sion that de­poses the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime.

In a gen­er­a­tion­al con­flict, avoid­ing the wrong battles (Vi­et­nam, Ir­aq) be­comes as im­port­ant as win­ning the battles we join. If ne­go­ti­ations fail, the risk of sharp­er con­flict with Ir­an, which could even­tu­ally de­mand air strikes, would es­cal­ate. But the prin­ciple of solvency ar­gues for tak­ing every reas­on­able step to avoid fight­ing a cold war (much less a hot one) against the re­gion’s lead­ing Shia power while fa­cing a meta­stas­iz­ing threat from Sunni rad­ic­als.

Al­low­ing Ir­an to re­main a nuc­le­ar-threshold state in­creases its in­flu­ence and could mag­ni­fy ten­sions across the re­gion. But an agree­ment could also strengthen the forces in­side Ir­a­ni­an so­ci­ety that be­lieve their coun­try would be­ne­fit from great­er en­gage­ment with the West. And bend­ing Ir­an’s tra­ject­ory even slightly away from con­front­a­tion and to­ward in­teg­ra­tion would pay com­pound­ing di­vidends dur­ing a struggle with rad­ic­al Is­lam that will likely test Amer­ica for dec­ades.

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