As the Islamic State expands the caliphate carved from what used to be Iraq and Syria, the American people demand that it be destroyed. Our ruling class responds with dysfunctional debate. Democrats blame Republicans for starting the Middle East’s war and vow not to worsen matters by intervening again, while most mainstream Republicans blame President Obama’s Democrats for throwing away what they call George W. Bush’s victory in Iraq and yearn for American “boots on the ground” to “save it.”
One side maintains that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is none of our business, while the other presumes that America’s business is to establish acceptable regimes. Both err — the first by neglecting that Middle East potentates’ agendas sometimes intrude upon our business, and the second by failing properly to distinguish between what is others’ business and what is ours. Both avoid the substance of the American people’s demand: Kill the cutthroats who behead Americans, who make converts among disaffected sectors of our population and encourage them to kill us.
Doing away with ISIS requires honesty about what America’s business is and is not, what is within our capacity and right to do and what is not. In short, while we have neither the capacity nor the right to determine who rules whom or how anywhere but at home, we have the power and the duty to destroy any individual, band or movement that means to kill us.
Each side recognizes the American people’s demand, and avoids it for its own reasons. The Obama administration does so by a de minimis military campaign in former Iraq, combined with mild cooperation with Iran. Thus, to avoid inconveniencing the Middle East’s progressive forces, it kicks the ISIS can down the road. Meanwhile, Republicans Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina give that can another kick with implausible calls to “get the locals involved in dealing with their own problems.” They seem not to notice that ISIS is our problem now.
Mainstream Republicans — Sen. John McCain and commentators at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal — also seem not to notice it because their salient concern is the same as that of the Bush administration: the unity of territorial integrity, and the decency of Iraq and other states in the region. Focused on other peoples’ business — on matters that, patently, are beyond our power or right to decide — they neglect what it takes to forcefully mind our own business.
And so the dysfunctional debate continues. On one side: bipartisan agreement on doing nothing that would compromise “Iraqi unity” regardless of what happens to ISIS — just a lower commitment of American involvement and continued efforts to involve a more local powers in the fight. On the other side: save Baghdad from ISIS by reoccupying at least some of Iraq. Sacrifice American lives, continue giving sophisticated arms to Iraqis who promptly surrender them to ISIS, but make sure that no such weapons reach the Kurds and the Shia because, though they fight ISIS, they pose a threat to the Bushy dream of a “united, democratic Iraq.” While our ruling class exchanges nonsense, hunting season on Americans remains open.
Resurrecting Iraq — or Syria, for that matter — ceased to be possible long ago. The local powers have their own agendas, none of which involve re-establishing respect for American lives, or stopping the growth ISIS’ contagion to America. That should be America’s agenda.
If it were, our political and military tasks would be straightforward: Publicly recognizing that ISIS is one component (in conflict with others) of one side of the great Sunni-Shia war that is convulsing the Muslim world, and the United States would declare its absolute neutrality in that war. America will do nothing to advantage or disadvantage either side. Whether Sunni or Shia rule any part of the Muslim world is none of America’s business. But having outraged Americans, destroying ISIS, along with anyone who gets in the way, is America’s business. We mean to mind this business of ours with maximum power.
We should begin with a total economic blockade on ISIS-controlled areas, notifying all governments that the United States will cut off economic intercourse with any country from whose jurisdiction persons or goods reach ISIS, or within which any ISIS-related financial transactions occur. Air patrols over the desert access routes can finish starving the cutthroats as a U.S. expeditionary force moves in around them. Never again must Americans be sacrificed in house-to-house fighting. Artillery and bombs from B-52s should do the bulk of the killing. The expeditionary force would finish off survivors. No prisoners. The Geneva Convention does not apply to pirates or cutthroats.
U.S. forces should come home quicker than they left, having minded our business by showing what happens to those who harm America.
• Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.
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