Thursday, September 25, 2014

Military muscle can't win battle for civilisation

There is a tension at the heart of President Barack Obama's campaign to confront the Islamic State, and it explains a lot about why he has so much trouble articulating and implementing his strategy.

Quite simply, it is the tension between two vital goals - promoting the "soul-searching" that the Islamic State's emergence has triggered in the Arab-Muslim world and "searching and destroying" the extremist group in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Get used to it. This tension is not going away.

Obama will have to lead through it. The good news: The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst. Look at a few samples, starting with The Barbarians Within Our Gates, written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel.

"With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama ... is stepping once again - and with understandably great reluctance - into the chaos of an entire civilisation that has broken down. Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism - the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition - than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.


"Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed," Melhem added. "The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays - all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms ... the jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk - what was left of a broken-down civilisation."

The liberal Saudi analyst Turki al-Hamad responded in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper to King Abdullah's call for Saudi religious leaders to confront Islamic State ideology: "How can they?" al-Hamad asked. They all embrace the same anti-pluralistic, puritanical Wahhabi Sunni ideology that Saudi Arabia diffused, at home and abroad, to the mosques that nurtured the Islamic State.

"They are unable to face the groups of violence, extremism and beheadings, not out of laziness or procrastination, but because all of them share in that same ideology," al-Hamad wrote. "How can they confront an ideology that they themselves carry within them and within their mindset?"

The Lebanese Shiite writer Hanin Ghaddar in an essay in August on Lebanon's Now website wrote: "To fight the IS and other radical groups, and to prevent the rise of new autocratic rulers, we need to assume responsibility for the collective failures that have produced all of these awful tyrants and fanatics. Our media and education systems are liable for the monster we helped create ... we need to teach our children how to learn from our mistakes instead of how to master the art of denial. When our educators and journalists start to understand the significance of individual rights, and admit that we have failed to be citizens, then we can start hoping for freedom, even if it is achieved slowly."

Nurturing this soul-searching is a vital - and smart - part of the Obama strategy. In committing  the US to an air-campaign-only against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, Obama has declared that the ground war will have to be fought by Arabs and Muslims, not just because this is their war and they should take the brunt of the casualties, but because the very act of their organising themselves across Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines - the very act of overcoming their debilitating sectarian and political differences that would be required to defeat the Islamic State on the ground - is the necessary ingredient for creating any kind of decent, consensual government that could replace the Islamic State in any self-sustaining way.

The tension arises because the Islamic State is a killing machine, and it will take another killing machine to search it out and destroy it on the ground. There is no way the "moderate" Syrians we're training can alone fight the militant group and the Syrian regime at the same time. Iraq, Turkey and the nearby Arab states will have to also field troops. After all, this is a civil war for the future of both Sunni Islam and the Arab world.

We can degrade the Islamic State from the air - I'm glad we have hit these psychopaths in Syria - but only Arabs and Turks can destroy the Islamic State on the ground. Right now, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including the Islamic State. He won't even let US forces use our base in Turkey to degrade the Islamic State from the air. What's in his soul? What's in the soul of the Arab regimes who are ready to join us in bombing the extremists in Syria, but rule out ground troops? This is a civilisation in distress, and unless it faces the pathologies that have given birth to an Islamic State monster in its belly, any victory we achieve from the air or ground will be temporary. 

New York Times

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