As Iowans enter the caucus season we will be hearing many opinions regarding US foreign policy.
At the head of the list of issues will undoubtedly be comments regarding what we should do about the Islamic State In Iraq better known as ISIS or ISIL.
The most important observation I can make is that the more a person, including the candidates, understands the 1,000 year history of the Middle East the better they will be at offering solutions. The second most important issue is to understand the various religions in their historical context.
ISIS is an offshoot of Al- Qaida but very different in their philosophy, beliefs and tactics. ISIS was formed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a radical Sunni Muslim cleric with a PHD in Islamic studies. His beliefs are based upon a very conservative reading of the Koran.
Their specific objective is to develop a Caliphate similar to what existed in the 7th century. When the 7th century Caliphate existed it occupied territory from what is now Spain across North Africa all the way to India. The Caliphate is basically defined as a territory governed by Sunni Muslims practicing an extreme version of Sharia Law.
The followers of ISIS have been quite adept at utilizing social media and are attracting converts from throughout the Muslim world as well as Europe and even a few from North America. To the extent the converts believe in all the nuances of the Caliphate as envisioned by Baghdadi is an open question. Many may be just drawn by the excitement, the thrill of a new idea, etc. However, enough of them have a religious fervor strong enough to so far defeat the Iraqi military. To the true believers the current fight is fundamentally a religious war against moderate Muslims, especially those who are not Sunni’s and the leadership of Iraq is in the hands of Shia Muslims.
I’m sure we will see terror attacks here and in Europe by either off shoots of ISIS or possibly other terrorist organizations, however ISIS’s primary objective is not to directly attack the United Sates at this time but establish a giant Caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa and THEN defeat “Rome”. In various writings Rome is sometimes meant to mean the Roman Empire, other times it is meant to mean Istanbul formally the headquarters of the Byzantine Empire and sometimes the US , as it represents the most powerful Western nation. We should always keep in mind that true believers look at the world through 7th century eyes and are certainly not afraid of dying for the cause.
With that limited background, then what should our foreign policy be toward ISIS?
Our approach needs to be historically founded, sensitive to the religious and ethnic rivalries and bold. Bold meaning a full court press i.e. diplomatic, financial, marketing-major emphasis on countering their social media (which we are currently doing quite badly) Should we put more “boots on the ground-probably for support , but not 100,000. In every conversation with every Middle East leader of a Muslim country we need to stress that they are the ones who need to be worried about ISIS and therefore they need to be the first line of defense in defeating them. If the Caliphate comes to pass in the way ISIS envisions it will mean their doom. The biggest job we will have is to referee between the various religious and ethnic factions as the fight continues. Currently for instance the Saudi’s believe there bigger threat is Iran, a Shia nation. In my mind if ISIS is allowed to grow their bigger problem will be the Islamic State. ISIS leaders despise the House of Saud.
It may be that the former President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Less Gelb had it correct by proposing that Iraq needed to be broken up into Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions. Vice President Biden, lead a bi- partisan effort to pass such legislation when he was in the Senate. For various reasons the current administration is not in favor of that approach. At this stage it looks like we have missed that boat, however it would be a question to ask political candidates if that is not still a good idea.
We must recognize it is darn near impossible for us to attempt to create democracies, or change governments in general without creating more havoc and instability then there was before.
Frankly no matter what we do, it probably will not work until such time as the various religious and ethnic factions learn to at least get along a bit and that may be a long way off.
As you visit with candidates ask them questions as to what specifically they would do. Because most candidates are “foreign policy light” the most important question is “what foreign policy experts would you surround your self with if you were president”. These are questions they need to know the answers to because one sentence or paragraph exclaiming a not well thought out foreign policy position is more frightening then none at all.
Much of what candidates talk about is domestic policy but when one is elected president we need to remember at least 50% or more of their energies are focused US foreign policy issues. That is where the rubber meets the road and a very important criteria in our selection of the next president.