Thinking beyond force in the fight against ISIS
Those of us who recall former President George W. Bush declaring war on the “axis of evil” shortly after September 11, 2001, could be forgiven for experiencing deja vu last week when President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. In a rhetorically-powerful speech evoking familiar and resonant values – typical for President Obama – some of his comments also took a distinctly atypical turn: specifically, referring to ISIS, he asserted that “there can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Not surprisingly, this assertion was quickly turned into a soundbite and rebroadcast in countless media outlets as a condensed summary of the President’s approach to ISIS.
What strikes me as so strange about the tone of this comment is its starkness: for a president who ordinarily presents a nuanced picture of global politics and their complexity, the president’s claim that no negotiation, only force, was possible seemed out of place. It’s hard to believe that the President actually thinks that the strategy with respect to an entity like ISIS could be so black-and-white. Unfortunately, this particular statement – and the independent prominence it has acquired since the speech – is simplistic, misleading, and unhelpful.
The idea that ISIS only understands force belies an underlying assumption that is surely misguided, namely that ISIS, as an organization, is completely monolithic. It assumes that we can deduce the interests of each component part of ISIS based on the despicable actions that have come to light in the past several months. What is clear is that these actions – particularly the brutal executions of civilians – exceed what any legitimate authority could condone, and are driven by a core of hardliners who may have grievances against Western powers and see any remedy as appropriate. What is less clear is whether this core group is representative of the entire organization. President Obama’s own speech illustrates that not even he sees ISIS as monolithic – indeed, he articulated a range of reasons why individuals might join ISIS, ranging from ideological alignment with this hardline core to a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness due to corruption, lack of resources, and sectarian conflict. At another point, he urged those who have joined ISIS to “leave the battlefield while they can.” Even as he presented a view of ISIS as a uniform group of killers (a “network of death”), President Obama implicitly acknowledged different strands of the organization.
As long as there stands a reasonable argument that ISIS not monolithic, we need to develop a strategy that is more sophisticated than force alone. And as long as we believe that members of ISIS can be persuaded to leave the battlefield, hope for negotiation is not lost.
What we may need to reimagine is what “negotiation” with ISIS (or strands of ISIS) might look like. Negotiation does not need to be formal; rather, it encompasses a broad range of processes and practices that are all intended to listen and engage the perspective of the other in order to come to some kind of durable resolution. Moreover, the United States can be a party to these processes without necessarily sitting at the literal or figurative negotiating table. Part of the purpose of having allies is to allow for possibilities such as Track II diplomacy and backchannels. Indeed, some of our allies have a much deeper understanding and level of historical knowledge of differing ideologies than does the United States. Part of an effective strategy, then, must be to work just as hard to align our interests with those of our allies as we work to engage with different groups within ISIS.
This approach requires perspective and humility – and perhaps President Obama did not feel that the American public is ready to hear a call for humility when the memories of the ghastly executions are still raw. But by acknowledging the differing motivations for joining ISIS, President Obama had the opportunity to present an unwavering refusal to tolerate the most brutal core of hardliners within ISIS, while also recognizing that one way to defeat this hardline core is to offer another option to those who joined ISIS out of helplessness and desperation.
It is possible that the Obama administration is working towards a resolution with ISIS in this multi-dimensional and thoughtful way. Indeed, I hope it is. The problem is that based on the President’s blanket statement about ISIS, it is impossible to know. A pronouncement that suggests that war is the only answer narrows the scope of our options, and only serves to deliver a soundbite to be distorted by the media. To influence ISIS short of violent conflict, the United States and its allies must be willing to speak – or learn – languages other than force.