The ISIS Hysteria

The ISIS prob­lem in Iraq and Syr­ia is get­ting worse. The most recent reports sug­gest there is a steady stream of recruits not just local­ly, but from Turkey, trav­el­ing into the coun­try to fight. The threat ISIS rep­re­sents (a grow­ing, finan­cial­ly self-sus­tain­ing ter­ror state that is destroy­ing coun­tries, impris­on­ing thou­sands, and bru­tal­ly mur­der­ing thou­sands more) clear­ly mer­its a response. But that does not mean all respons­es are equal­ly appro­pri­ate — nor does it mean that the most mil­i­taris­tic response is going to do what it should.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s cur­rent plan is sort of the worst of all worlds — it is aggres­sive­ly kinet­ic, but non-com­mit­tal; heavy on rhetoric but light on fol­low-through; big on an end state (“defeat­ing” ISIS) but not on how to get there (air strikes won’t do it). The legal foun­da­tions for it are iffy, at best, fraught with Amer­i­ca’s thor­ough­ly bro­ken Con­gress and with Oba­ma’s own overblown rhetoric about his pre­de­ces­sor’s war pow­ers. And per­haps worst still, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has appealed to Amer­i­ca’s expe­ri­ences in Yemen and Soma­lia as suc­cess sto­ries to emu­late in Iraq.

One year ago, when the White House announced the clo­sure of 20 US embassies due to a threat by Yemen’s al Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la (AQAP), spokesman Jay Car­ney said the group telling reporters that AQAP “pos­es the great­est poten­tial threat to the Unit­ed States.” He said this despite AQAP not suc­cess­ful­ly even attempt­ing an attack on the U.S. for more than three years, despite the com­plete lack of any notice­able fol­low-through from any ter­ror branch against any US facil­i­ty, and despite months of claims by the White House that their Yemen strat­e­gy was work­ing.

The real­i­ty was that such an overblown response to what turned out to be a very lim­it­ed threat against the US embassy in Sana’a was just free adver­tis­ing to AQAP. The US has a his­to­ry of this: one could argue that Amer­i­ca’s obses­sion with and igno­rant resume infla­tion of Amer­i­can ter­ror-cler­ic Anwar al-Awla­ki actu­al­ly raised his pro­file with­in AQAP, pro­mot­ing him from what was essen­tial­ly mid­dle man­age­ment to an oper­a­tional role in the orga­ni­za­tion before his death in a drone strike.

That nev­er made the threat from AQAP imma­te­r­i­al — they launched wor­ry­ing attacks both on Amer­i­cans in Yemen, the gov­ern­ment of Yemen, and direct­ly on US ter­ri­to­ry. But it does sug­gest that the US does not always con­tex­tu­al­ize the threats it sees from these groups prop­er­ly. AQAP is a group that needs to be coun­tered and con­tained, but “defeat­ing” it is an unreach­able goal with the cur­rent pol­i­cy and cur­rent Yemeni gov­ern­ment.

You can see a sim­i­lar dynam­ic in play in Soma­lia: the U.S. has had vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess in con­tain­ing and lim­it­ing the threat al-Shabab can pose from its hide­aways in the coun­try­side, but with­out a sol­id, func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment and with­out a mas­sive, over­whelm­ing ground pres­ence it real­ly can­not do much beyond that. It was­n’t enough to pre­vent or halt the West­gate Mall attack in Nairo­bi, or even var­i­ous bomb­ings through­out Mogadishu, Baidoa, or even Kam­pala… even if it is enough to keep the group most­ly con­tained inside Soma­lia.

But con­tain­ment is not in the cards for ISIS — both Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Sec­re­tary of John Ker­ry have said in unam­bigu­ous terms that ISIS will not be con­tained, but “defeat­ed,” or “crushed,” or in some oth­er way per­ma­nent­ly erased from the Mid­dle East. They say this because ISIS “pos­es an immi­nent threat to the US,” accord­ing to Sec­re­tary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The threat posed by ISIS faces “every inter­est we have,” Hagel said lat­er, “whether it’s in Iraq or any­where else.”

This is beyond any­thing we’ve seen,” he added.

Almost on cue, the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive war push­ers in DC began draft­ing grand, expen­sive, dan­ger­ous plans to “defeat” ISIS.

But there is a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of all this rhetoric against ISIS: it can­not pos­si­bly be true. Inflat­ing the threat posed by AQAP from a region­al one most­ly about polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty (with a mod­er­ate risk of direct, small-scale threats against the US direct­ly) to an exis­ten­tial one against the US is a great way to ral­ly sup­port for a pol­i­cy, but it is not an accu­rate or hon­est assess­ment of the actu­al chal­lenge and threat these groups pose. Michael Tomasky put it best yes­ter­day: “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.”

The threat from ISIS is real. The enslave­ment of 35 mil­lion peo­ple across two most­ly failed states is a seri­ous prob­lem. The chance that ISIS — so rad­i­cal even al Qae­da has split from it — would have ter­ri­to­ry, a tax base, oil assets, and so on, from which to plan and launch strikes else­where is ter­ri­fy­ing. And the hor­ri­ble way they’ve treat­ed the peo­ple they’ve con­quered could only lead to more chaos and death should they ever attain even the paper legit­i­ma­cy of solid­ly con­trol­ling enough ter­ri­to­ry to have a qua­si-state.

But how­ev­er real the threat from ISIS is, it is not an exis­ten­tial threat to the US. ISIS pos­es no dan­ger of destroy­ing or even sig­nif­i­cant­ly dis­rupt­ing our econ­o­my or way of life. They can cause tremen­dous chaos, throw ener­gy mar­kets into a death spi­ral, and bru­tal­ize mil­lions of peo­ple near impor­tant ship­ping lanes, but those are not exis­ten­tial threats.

Why do Amer­i­cans view secu­ri­ty threats from the Mid­dle East in such apoc­a­lyp­tic terms? For all the world it sounds like anoth­er al Qae­da orga­ni­za­tion, the Abu Sayyaf Group. Just like in Yemen, Soma­lia, and Iraq, Abu Sayyaf pig­gy­backed on wide­spread local dis­con­tent with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, and essen­tial­ly co-opt­ed (for a time) the Moro inde­pen­dence move­ment. Though rarely noticed in the US, Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom — the war to top­ple the Tal­iban, sup­pos­ed­ly end­ing on Decem­ber 31 of this year — also had a major oper­a­tion in the Philip­pines to counter ASG, as it’s known, start­ing in 2002.

Abu Sayyaf was fond of bru­tal mur­ders, con­quer­ing ter­ri­to­ry, and of abduct­ing Amer­i­cans and threat­en­ing them with behead­ing in return for ran­som. The U.S. would assist the Fil­ipino gov­ern­ment with mas­sive cam­paigns to sweep islands of the ter­ror­ist group, and even launched raids to attempt to res­cue abduct­ed Amer­i­cans. It mir­rored, in many ways, the behav­ior ISIS now employs in north­ern Iraq and east­ern Syr­ia. But just like the equal­ly bru­tal car­tels in Latin Amer­i­ca, Abu Sayyaf nev­er received the blan­ket media cov­er­age that ISIS has. Yet despite their ongo­ing threat — they still kid­nap and engage in unbe­liev­ably bru­tal acts — they are not viewed as the press­ing glob­al secu­ri­ty con­cern that ISIS is. And they prob­a­bly offer an even bet­ter mod­el for how to con­tain and counter a ter­ror group than Yemen or Soma­lia ever did.

I sus­pect this is due to cog­ni­tive bias: We in the West are trained to see the Mid­dle East as a con­stant source of exis­ten­tial threat — so when a bru­tal group that is hor­rif­ic but not ter­ri­bly unique in the grand scheme of insur­gen­cies emerges, we tend to default to apoc­a­lyp­tic lan­guage to describe it, even when that lan­guage is whol­ly inap­pro­pri­ate and might even risk dele­git­imiz­ing the effort to con­tain and counter them.

If ISIS tru­ly rep­re­sent­ed that grave a threat to Amer­i­ca — beyond any­thing we’ve seen (accord­ing to the Defense Sec­re­tary who lived through the Cold War), touch­ing every­thing Amer­i­cans care about glob­al­ly, then we would not have two bat­tal­ions of spe­cial oper­a­tors and a few hun­dred air strikes on the menu for coun­ter­ing them. NATO’s cam­paign in Koso­vo was more intense. Going by the neo­cons, even 25,000 troops is not how you respond to a legit­i­mate­ly exis­ten­tial threat. Not even close. An exis­ten­tial threat requires mobi­liza­tion as a response: not 25,000 but 125,000 troops deployed to counter and defeat the threat. Not a few air strikes here and there but blan­ket cov­er­age to per­ma­nent­ly destroy their capac­i­ty to gath­er, orga­nize, and trav­el. Not just some SOF teams but an expan­sive spe­cial oper­a­tions mis­sion to hunt down lead­ers, cells, and key nodes and destroy them.

What’s on offer instead is more of the same: tepid, lim­it­ed ground incur­sions backed up by some air pow­er and drones. It is not a response to an actu­al­ly exis­ten­tial chal­lenge.

The real­i­ty is that ISIS pos­es the same sort of threat AQAP or Al-Shabab or Abu Sayyaf or even the Zeta Car­tel does: very real, with hor­ri­ble con­se­quences for their own coun­tries and extreme­ly dis­rup­tive effects region­al­ly, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dam­ag­ing, hor­rif­ic, yet still rel­a­tive­ly small scale attacks against the West. It is a threat that must be coun­tered.

Yet the inflat­ed gov­ern­ment rhetoric, cyn­i­cal war mon­ger­ing by neo­con­ser­v­a­tive activists, and feck­less cov­er­age by our vaunt­ed media are cre­at­ing a house of cards that has every pos­si­bil­i­ty of col­laps­ing into noth­ing. Cre­at­ing hys­te­ria over ISIS, when a sober, con­sid­ered response is need­ed is not just irre­spon­si­ble — it is prob­a­bly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. And we will see the fruits of that self-destruc­tive­ness over time if we are not very care­ful in reign­ing in expec­ta­tions.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.