In contrast to most Republican candidates, who have given us general platitudes about "getting tougher on terrorism" or vague promises to use more ground troops in Iraq or Syria, Hillary Clinton has proposed a more concrete program for battling ISIS; unfortunately most of it is bad.
The centerpiece of her proposal is to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria near the Turkish border, which would allegedly protect Syrian refugees, cut ISIS supply lines, and give the United States leverage against Russia in any settlement of Syria’s civil war. President Obama has rejected this idea for several good reasons, the best being that it would definitely lead to war with Bashar al Assad’s Syrian government (his air defenses would need to be knocked down) and, even more dangerously, possibly with the nuclear-armed Russia, which has aircraft flying over Syrian air space in defense of Assad’s regime. To avoid the possibility of war with Russia, Mrs. Clinton would need to get the Russians to cooperate with the no-fly zone, which she is confident of under her expert presidential leadership but which is unlikely.
Reasons number two and three are that a no-fly zone would deepen U.S. involvement in the Syrian quagmire and has no legal basis (even overlooking of course that U.S. bombing of Syrian territory without a proper congressional authorization is already illegal and unconstitutional). A no-fly zone would involve expensive constant air patrols and the insertion of U.S. ground forces to protect the zone – the tip of the iceberg of possible escalation that doesn’t solve the overall problem. Finally, even if a no-fly zone garnered the United States leverage to get a good settlement with Russia of the Syrian civil war, it may not be worth the paper it’s written on. In the international system, great powers are usually accustomed to coercing lesser entities to do what they want. The brutal and wild Islamist groups opposing Assad – ISIS, al Qaeda’s affiliate al Nusra, and some other radical Islamist groups – will probably not pay any attention to the United States and Russia. They will either need to be smashed using military power or be made to lose their cache by their heinous violence becoming obsolete.
Unfortunately, prior U.S. foreign interventions created al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, and its nastier spin-off ISIS and also exacerbated the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in the Middle East, which has allowed these groups to flourish, despite their viciousness, as protectors of Sunnis from oppressive Shi’ite governments in Iraq and Syria. Clinton’s solution to fighting radical Islamism is to rebuild and revitalize the broken nation-state system in the entire region. This disastrous system was imposed by the Western colonial powers – read: Britain and France – after they unwisely dismantled the Islamic caliphate of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Unworkable "national" boundaries were drawn without regard to ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines; also, secular governments were imposed on Islamic lands that don’t believe in a separation of church and state.
However, Clinton did stumble onto one intelligent thought. She realized that to get rid of or to contain ISIS, as its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq was contained, Sunni Arabs would themselves need to do the job. Yet you can’t get to this outcome by attempting the herculean task of reforming the corrupt and sectarian Shi’ite governments of Iraq and Syria. As long as those governments dominate Sunni lands, Sunnis will turn to ISIS, al Nusra, or other radical Islamist groups to defend against them. The only solution is to recognize the stark reality that the artificial states of Iraq and Syria are no more. So is a pan-Arab restoration of the caliphate, as desired by ISIS or al Nusra, the answer? No that is unworkable too, especially if Islamist crazies are running it.
The answer is to recognize that Iraq and Syria have been partitioned by civil war and to try to adjust the boundaries to give the various ethno-sectarian groups viable areas in which to govern themselves. If Sunni Arabs no longer fear discriminatory or repressive Shi’ite central governments, they would no longer have any incentive to tolerate the cruelty of ISIS and might get rid of the group, as the Iraqi Sunnis did to al Qaeda in Iraq during the U.S. occupation.
Sunni Turkey, with a huge and capable Muslim army right next door, also needs to do more to combat ISIS, and a no-fly zone that makes the Turks feel more secure is not a way to encourage them to do so. In other words, the more the U.S. military does, the fewer incentives the Turks have to police their own region.
But isn’t the U.S. military even more capable than the Turkish military? Yes, the U.S. military could go in and initially smash ISIS and the other Islamist groups, but as I said in my book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency, in the long run (and it will be long), if the United States is using U.S. forces, instead of local or regional forces, to battle guerrillas, it will be much less likely to win. Such forces know the local culture better than U.S. forces and have better intelligence on who is a guerrilla and who is not.
But isn’t ISIS such an acute threat to the United States that more U.S. ground troops should be sent to Iraq and Syria to smash it quickly? No. Despite the attacks in Paris, Europe is not America. It is much closer than America to the conflict zone, has much greater refugee flows from that zone, and has much greater populations of disaffected Muslims, who are poorer, less educated, and less integrated with their societies than in the United States.
As a result, ISIS’s recruiting of people in the United States to travel to Syria to fight and get military training has been so bad that it has changed strategy and is now encouraging ISIS sympathizers to stay at home and do something in America. This change in strategy has actually decreased the rate that Americans are traveling to Syria to fight by 78 percent. According to senior counterterrorism officials, since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, less than 50 Americans have traveled to Syria to fight; some died in battle and a small number have returned to the United States but have lost interest in the cause. Thus, American officials have said that no credible organized threat from ISIS exists in the United States; they do worry that the Paris attacks could spark angry young men (and sometimes women) to launch "lone wolf" attacks in America.
Law enforcement officials here, always trying to get more resources from a worried public, say that these lone wolf attackers are harder to track versus organized plots of trained individuals. This is a half-truth. Such lone wolf attackers usually have no military training, are often hapless boobs, are unlikely to be very effective, and are thus easier for law enforcement authorities to disrupt.
Given the blanket news coverage of the Paris attacks, public hysteria is understandable but not warranted. Politicians of both parties during campaigns love to exploit such irrationality. Don’t let them; the republic is strong and shouldn’t fear its own shadow, even though our government originally helped create it. And also the U.S. government needs to quit making the shadow longer, thus endangering its own people, by excessive military intervention in Muslim lands.