The Obama administration should be wary of indulging in calls to smash ISIS. As we learned over the last decade, large-scale military action may feel satisfying, especially when the targets are morally repulsive. But military destruction leaves behind a political vacuum, and ruthless people will fight to fill it. We had a temporary celebration after toppling Saddam Hussein before Iraq descended into civil war. We may have another one if we destroy ISIS without being able to build a durable political order in the aftermath. In fact, if recent history is a guide, the results of an intensive campaign may turn out to be costly, bloody, and counterproductive.
So as the administration ponders its strategy, it needs to answer four basic questions.
- First, what is the U.S. interest in this conflict? Is ISIS a genuine threat to American national security, or is it mostly a threat to local populations?
- Second, will U.S. military action lead to a backlash and increase the popularity of ISIS fighters? That is, do we risk giving them prestige they do not deserve?
- Third, who will rule the peace? Is political stability possible in Iraq and Syria without the presence of large U.S. military forces?
- Fourth, are there good alternatives to military escalation? Are there more limited options? Is it enough to contain ISIS without destroying it in detail?
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair of International Politics and National Security, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Director of Studies at the Tower Center for Political Studies. Rovner writes extensively on strategy and security. His recent book, Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011), is a wide-ranging study about how leaders use and misuse intelligence.