Please—Let's Not Destroy ISIS

Obama’s mission is hard enough without him stating a clearly unachievable goal. Why do presidents feel they have to sound like John Wayne?

09.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Americans should support this mission against ISIS. One may well choose to do so warily, because, as I wrote in the wake of President Obama’s speech last week, it depends on a lot of uncontrollable variables (the Saudis behaving like good guys) against which odds are rather long. But a deeply fundamentalist nation-state in the Levant that is large and extremely wealthy would be an obvious disaster for the region and the United States a number of reasons. So we have to try to stop them.

But here’s something we’re not going to do, and I wish Obama and especially John Kerry would stop saying it. We are not going to “destroy” ISIS, to use the word Obama deployed in last week’s address (preceded by a marginally softening “ultimately”). The Islamic State will not be “crushed,” as John Kerry huffily put it in a recent tweet.  This is not possible. We all know this. We’ve been trying to destroy al Qaeda for 13 years now. We have not. We will not. And we will not destroy ISIS. We can’t destroy these outfits. They’re too nimble and slippery and amorphous, and everybody knows it.

So why say it? Why not say what we hopefully can do and what we should do: contain it. We have contained al Qaeda. Some of the methods have been morally problematic (drone strikes that sometimes kill innocents, etc.), but the methods have worked. Al Qaeda, say the experts, is now probably not in a position to pull off a 9/11. Containment is fine. It does the job.

But no, I guess a president can’t say that. A president has to sound like John Wayne. It’s depressing and appalling. If he doesn’t go cowboy on us, the war hawks will call him a weakling, say he is unfit and unprepared—and in Obama’s case, they will surely add that he is unwilling—to defend “the homeland,” this phrase we’re all now supposed to use that carries a slightly totalitarian odor about it. If Obama spoke only of containment, John McCain might just have a stroke, and the Sunday shows would have to go off the air.

But contain is what we should do. And I do wish Obama had the conviction to stand up and say it. The statement would have the virtue of being true. It would treat the American people as if they were mature adults who could handle a complex truth, which I actually think most of them (or most of the ones who follow world events anyway) can. Yes, it would hand some political fodder to the right-wing noise machine, but this is exactly the problem: Making impossible promises about destroying ISIS constitutes pandering to that very noise machine, which will only turn around two years later when ISIS is not destroyed and attack Obama ferociously for issuing a false promise. 

He can’t win with those people. So he should just tell the truth to the rest of America and let the wingers hyperventilate all they want. And Kerry should really just cool it. That one quote  of his a couple weeks ago—“there is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army”—strung together more alarmist adjectives than a right-wing attack ad against a Democrat in a deep-red state.

This exact kind of pandering to our most reactionary and hawkish elements has, of course, led to much needless tragedy in our history, as Kerry in particular well knows. We went into Vietnam, the war Kerry so famously went on to oppose, on a large scale pretty much only because Lyndon Johnson thought the Senate would impeach him if he didn’t. And when we have been spared such tragedy, it has happened precisely because presidents have stood up to the bully caucus. I hope we’re all in agreement, for example, that Dwight Eisenhower was right not to nuke North Korea. Eisenhower, of course, was rather difficult to second-guess on such matters. It’s tragic that a president has to be that bulletproof.

Containing the Islamic State is important. If you can’t be bothered to care about, oh, the potential for unspeakable subjugation of 15 million or 30 million women who might be forced to live under ISIS rule if the group achieves its stated goals, think about ISIS building a real nation-state out of Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda trained in remote and backwards Afghanistan. Imagine the terrorist training facilities ISIS could set up with that much territory in the heart of the Middle East. Or imagine this (Sunni) state with nuclear capacity, which it surely would seek as counterweight to Shia Iran, if it becomes a nuclear power someday.

I would add, speaking more directly to liberals, that there are other reasons to be supportive of the plan. It’s apparently real that Obama is trying to do this without working closely with Iran and the Syrian regime—and by extension Hezbollah, whose soldiers have arguably kept Bashar al-Assad propped up. Yes, our interests will intersect with Iran’s in Iraq up to a point, and some intelligence cooperation seems inevitable. But they will also diverge: We have to re-Sunni-fy the army, for example, which Iran won’t want.

But at least we’re not in open or quasi-open alliance with these forces. That would have been the cynical Kissingerian play. After all, Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah have the motive and the firepower to fight ISIS. But Obama resists allying with them, and mostly for the right reasons (and so as not to anger the Saudis). So, for liberals, whose main critique of U.S. foreign policy for 70 years has centered on the amorality of our choices—that we didn't care what happened to actual human beings in these countries as long as their dictators were serving our immediate national-security interests—I should think this represents a kind of progress, pending a non-disastrous outcome.

But please—tell the truth about what’s possible here, and tell Americans that containment is just fine.