The Islamic State Provides the U.S. With a Chance to Rethink Its Default Position on Airstrikes

Bombs and missiles tend to strengthen, not weaken, the resolve of those in targeted areas. (Photo: USMC Lance Corporal James J. Vooris / Flickr)

Bombs and missiles tend to strengthen, not weaken, the resolve of those in targeted areas. (Photo: USMC Lance Corporal James J. Vooris / Flickr)

The latest execution by the Islamic State of another non-combatant, aid worker David Haines, is yet another example of how Islamist extremists blur the distinctions between civilians and combatants. Of course it’s tough to condemn them on that count because the United States, especially via drone strikes, has been a trendsetter in that regard. Nevertheless, the sadism implicit in beheading ― whatever happened to the good old days when slicing someone’s neck sufficed? ― threatens to make us all react like New York Post columnist Ralph Peters when interviewed by Fox News:

“You whack those suckers, and you keep whacking them and you scorch the earth and then you plow over and then you scorch it again.”

Needless to say that’s, uh, ill-advised. But how advisable is the plan that President Obama outlined in his speech on September 10? At Slate, Fred Kaplan writes:

There are two big new elements in this policy: First, air strikes will no longer be restricted to areas where ISIS poses a threat to U.S. personnel. Instead, they can strafe and bomb ISIS targets anywhere in Iraq, coordinating the strikes with assaults on the ground by Iraqi soldiers, militias, or Kurdish peshmerga.

Second, these air strikes will take out ISIS jihadists not only in Iraq but also across the border in Syria. A senior official stressed that this part of the policy is not as open-ended as the speech makes it seem. Obama is well aware that air strikes alone don’t produce victory. They need to be synchronized with ground assaults. And for now, there are no ground forces in Syria that can beat back ISIS.

As is often the case, airstrikes are, for the United States, the weapon of first and last resort. In fact, they demonstrate a glaring failure of imagination. Creativity, for example, can be see in Win Without War’s A Plan to Resolve the ISIS Threat without American Bombs. Stephen Miles wrote:

Tonight President Obama will address the nation and unveil his strategy for confronting the violent extremists of ISIS. … While the President is also expected to discuss non-military efforts to confront ISIS and address the broader crisis in Iraq and Syria, we are deeply troubled by the continued focus on military-only solutions.

Let’s be clear, American bombs cannot eradicate the threat of ISIS. You cannot bomb away an ideology. … Fortunately, there are other ways to address the crises in Iraq and Syria, and, while they lack the immediacy of bombing, they are ultimately far more effective in keeping America safe, protecting innocent lives, and crippling violent extremists.

To wit

Cracking down on Turkish, Iraqi, and other oil dealers who are purchasing ISIS’s oil on the black market would cut ISIS off from its most important revenue stream.

Not to mention

America must push countries like Turkey to crack down on the flow of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria [as well as] the flow of weapons to other parties in the region. Arms transfers to Syrian rebels and the Iraqi military have led to ISIS gaining American-made weapons.

Win Without War also calls for humanitarian aid.

Failing to address the needs of refugees and internally displaced people not only directly costs lives, but also helps to feed further radicalization and instability.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Miles wrote:

ISIS thrives because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which are fueled by foreign interests. Resolving these conflicts ultimately depends on American diplomacy – not American bombs – involving all the parties including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.

Meanwhile, at Foreign Policy in Focus, Phyllis Bennis agrees with Win Without War that “military solutions really don’t work. Have we forgotten the failures of the U.S. wars in the Middle East over these many years?” Instead:

We need to keep our focus on the medium- and long-term solutions, something not so easy to do in an election year.

We have to recognize that military attacks are not only wrong in a host of ways … but also that those strikes are making real solutions impossible.

Ms. Bennis’s steps to beat ― or more accurately neutralize ― the Islamic State include, besides stopping the airstrikes and “no boots on the ground,” “a real diplomatic partnership to deal with ISIS. … That means serious engagement with Iran, among other players.” She also recommends that we, “Initiate a new search for broader diplomatic solutions in the United Nations,” including pushing the UN, “to restart real negotiations on ending the civil war in Syria,” which means “working to build a real coalition aimed at using diplomatic and financial pressures, not military strikes, at the international level in both Iraq and Syria.”

As you can see, viable alternatives to our default position ― bombing ― exist. We only have to keep our eye on the root causes of a conflict, much of them our doing, at the same time as we’re dealing with the consequences.