The Great Debate
Many believe that killing the leaders of terrorist organizations like Islamic State could change the course of events in Iraq and Syria. Like the cutting off of a snake’s head, eliminating the chief of a terrorist organization is assumed to deal it a fatal or near fatal blow. The U.S. government, for instance, has often boasted about eliminating major al Qaeda leaders, and viewed such assassinations as a clear mark of progress in the ‘global war on terror.’
Last week British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said the struggle against Islamic State was “effectively Iraq’s last chance as nation state.”
When President Barack Obama assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council Wednesday, he summoned the full weight of U.S. power to a cause with seeming universal appeal: defeating the barbarism of Islamic State -- or, as Obama calls the militant group, Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL).
In June 2014, the militant group that Obama refers to as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, grabbed the world’s attention after it took over much of northern Iraq in roughly four days. Islamic State accomplished this by building a massive, sophisticated virtual network of fighters in addition to those on the ground. Indeed, its expansion online has been as swift as its territorial gains. It is this virtual power grab that will be most difficult to combat.
Muslims in the Middle East are fighting wars of religion. Like the carnage between Protestants and Catholics that haunted Northern Ireland during the last third of the 20th century, there is little anyone can do until local peoples crave peace so intensely they are willing to cultivate it.
“We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq,” New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote. There, in the Land of the Two Rivers, he continued, the United States confronts the “core problem” of our era — “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”
When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won’t be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.