The Western strategic calculus regarding the Islamic State, certain tactical successes notwithstanding, rests on denial and wishful thinking. Wars “against terror” are band aids concealing metastasizing socio-economic cancer.
ISIS is making moves in Afghanistan, expanding steadily (if slowly, now) in Syria, holding its own in much of Iraq (albeit on the defensive around Mosul), fighting in force in Libya, and making officially acknowledged inroads into Turkish society. Bin Laden fought his whole adult life to create a global terrorist organization that has spent much of its effort on the run trying to survive. ISIS, in six months, has effectively established a state that appears, over the short term, impressively stable and, more impressive, able to push forward in several directions simultaneously. It has also very effectively split NATO by A) cowing Turkey or B) convincing Turkey that it is too useful to be alienated.
This pattern contains a serious message: U.S. policy is failing because a military challenge with little if any socio-economic follow-through tends to play the radical game. The Mideast needs a new deal, which will not be pleasant for the U.S. ruling elite: it will mean lower profits and embarrassing compromises, higher oil prices to fund Mideast social services, less U.S. influence over partners in pacifying the region (e.g., Tehran), and a vastly more complicated policy challenge. There is, sadly, very little evidence that Western policy-makers are up to the challenge and not so very much evidence that Mideast policy-makers (specifically in Tehran and Ankara and Riyadh and Baghdad) are either.
The more one examines the details of the success of ISIS, the more complicated it becomes. Outside support for Sunni radicalism, both for long-term religious and short-term political reasons, is one source of complications [e.g., external support for ISIS, as in Latuff’s cartoon of Saudi funding of ISIS]. Another is non-Sunni but equally extreme behavior by a host of short-sighted, self-centered actors [e.g., state terrorism, as in yAce’s cartoon of Israeli bombing of Palestinians].
More fundamental, however, is the absence of any attractive alternative for regional inhabitants. Western policies focusing on the elimination of terrorism are but band aids over metastasizing cancers. Addressing external sources of support for terrorism is still just a tactical response. Reforming external state terrorism and other forms of external exploitation (e.g., supporting Mideast client dictatorships or looking the other way at corrupt Mideastern leaders who sell oil to the West only to steal the profits from their own people) are, in contrast, the type of fundamental reforms that would open the door to a new deal for regional populations that would have the potential for undercutting the current appeal of extremists. For Palestinians in Israel or Lebanon, Kurds in Syria or Turkey, Sunnis in Iraq, Shi’a in Yemen, what evidence exists that peaceful behavior and working “within the system” will gain them their fair share of resources, social services, political access, and police protection? Therein lies the key to a practical policy for stability. Anti-Western terror is the canary in the mine, but the West is still not getting the message.