In order to formulate an effective response to the Sunni fundamentalist crusade, one must understand the causal dynamics in the Mideast political environment that generate regional extremism. Bombs, slurs on Islam, and protestations that one will not be cowed by terrorism are but band aids over metastasizing cancer.
The first clue that something is seriously amiss in the Mideast is surprise. No matter how much in denial policymakers may have been about the various inequities in the Mideast, the whole world has now realized that with ISIS, “something is going on.” The next step, which should be obvious, is that the surprise is likely to result from a variety of perhaps hidden driving factors, such as nationalism, economic deprivation, insecurity, demand for respect. To explain everything away as simply “Islam is violent” or “the leader is a terrorist” does nothing but reveal the superficiality of the speaker.
Nothing really difficult lies in these first two steps, despite the problems that they seem to present to Western policymakers. It is really the third intellectual step toward understanding a bizarre phenomenon such as the explosion of ISIS across the Mideast that presents a cognitive challenge to the analyst: drawing the correct implications from acceptance of a picture of multiple, interacting, hidden dynamics driving behavior. The essence here is…tipping points. No secret will tell us what will happen, but what must be understood is the likelihood of reaching, without warning, a tipping point (e.g., the collapse of moderate Syrian rebels, the collapse of Iraqi Shi’I resistance, or—from the earlier case of the Arab Spring—the explosion of mass popular resistance to the Egyptian military dictatorship).
The point of belaboring tipping points is not to engage in laborious historical nitpicking but to warn policymakers: like mountain peaks, tipping points tend to occur in groups. Why? A situation resulting from multiple factors will contain surprising tipping points (e.g., the collapse of the defense of Mosul) because they result from the arbitrary intersection of two or more unrelated dynamics (e.g., an outside power’s decision to provide military assistance to a useful militia plus the assessment of a marginalized secular group that the regime will not share power peacefully).
But the Mideast political system is a complex-adaptive system: political dynamics do not just flow like wind and tides (whose interaction is chaotic enough!) but adapt autonomously. After all, political dynamics are implemented by humans deciding how to behave. This introduces a whole new level of uncertainty: not only is it difficult to calculate the direction and speed of change on the part of all the driving dynamics but a wide variety of human actors are constantly tweaking those dynamics…and doing so without necessarily coordinating among themselves (in fact, expressly avoiding coordination), resulting in still more tipping points and surprise.
The message to policymakers, then, is, “Do not panic! Do not put all your eggs in the basket of immediate, full-scale Western-style warfare…because things will change, and overreacting is more than likely to cause things to change is ways you will not like.”
Rather, the solution lies in determining the nature of the underlying dynamics: how to stop the flow of outside assistance, how to protect your friends, how to encourage allies in power to share that power, how to split temporary allies. Obama has shown considerable understanding of this but not, unfortunately, to the point of perceiving that this is the skeleton of a strategy. This strategy skeleton would define the issues to be addressed: Turkish openness to ISIS recruitment, Saudi funding of jihadis, Israeli exploitation of the ISIS terror as cover for its own campaign of terror in Gaza, the long-term tendency of Iran to support Shi’i discrimination against Sunnis, the refusal of all sides ever to allow space for Kurdish aspirations. The skeleton of a strategy would specify these areas for action. The real strategy would state how to do so and, critically, would constitute the guidelines for long-term U.S. policy. Bombing jihadis trying to commit genocide may well be an essential tactic but should be seen and presented to the world as an unfortunate and temporary crisis response, not as the nose of American cowboy imperialism once again under the Arab tent…a temporary tactic to be replaced immediately by a long-term strategic response focusing on shifting the regional political culture. In practice, the latter resolves into:
defining a post-Assad regime that governs some portion of Syria in a power-sharing arrangement with minorities and quite possibly incorporating the union of Kurdish Syrians with Kurdistan as well as the return of the Golan Heights, a move that would immediately enhance the credibility of any new Syrian regime;
stating a long-term U.S. goal of Israel returning to its legally recognized borders and immediately getting Israel out of Gaza by putting some other entity in control of the region to preclude further Israel military onslaughts and to set up with Hamas and any other Gaza factions an effective regime, so that Israel’s Gaza policy will no longer constitute grist for the jihadi mill;
long-term continuation of Obama’s current policy of basing S. support for Baghdad on the implementation of a non-discriminatory power-sharing arrangement, which would constitute an historic first for post-Ottoman Iraq;
the strongest possible encouragement of a Saudi-Iranian understanding leading to a regional compromise, probably including shared access to pipelines crossing Syria and certainly dependent on the emergence of a power-sharing regime to replace Assad;
genuine U.S. compromise with Iran, with the significant lessening or termination of U.S. economic warfare against Iran and a clear public statement that the U.S. opposes and reserves the right to prevent by its own military any use of military force across the Persian Gulf in either direction.
That is the minimal (omitting, as it does, other issues such as reforming the Saudi educational system) strategy for restructuring the Mideast political system such that it will no longer be fertile ground for the emergence of (Sunni, Shi’i, Jewish, or secular) extremism.