By Paul R. Pillar
A couple of tendencies that are all too
common in policymaking and policy debate tend to make for unwise foreign
commitments or overextended foreign expeditions. One is to treat a goal that is
at most an intermediate objective as if it were an end in itself. Doing so
obfuscates clear analysis of means and ends, overlooks other ways to achieve
the same ends, and distorts perception of the costs and benefits associated
with achieving the immediate objective.
The other tendency is to give insufficient
attention to what comes after achieving the immediate objective. One only has
to recall the example of insufficient attention given to what would come after
the objective of overthrowing Saddam Hussein to appreciate the problems
One could add a third phenomenon, which is
less common but sometimes arises, which is to try to fulfil a campaign promise
for the sake of fulfilling a campaign promise.
All three factors appear to be present now
with the issue of next steps for the U.S. military in Syrian going after ISIS.
The head of U.S. Central Command is saying, “It could be that we take on a
larger burden ourselves.”His comment comes amid the Department of Defence
coming up with a plan requested by President Trump, who promised during the
campaign to hasten the defeat of ISIS.
Of course ISIS is a horrible group, and
everyone not in it agrees that the world will be better off without it. But
before U.S. forces take up any larger share of the burden of fighting it, three
realities ought to be carefully considered.
One is that the ISIS mini-state in Syria
and Iraq already is well on the way to being extinguished, at the hands of the
forces already engaging it. This should not be surprising, given the group’s lack
of external support and the way its brutal methods lose it any support among
the populations with which it has come into contact. The issue involved in
considering any escalation with U.S. forces is not whether the mini-state will
be killed off, but only how quickly it will be.
Second, if our main concern is with how
ISIS could endanger American lives through acts of terrorism, we should realize
that the connection between that danger and the fate of the mini-state in Syria
and Iraq has always been tenuous at best, and less than is commonly supposed.
There has been more of a tension than a direct connection between ISIS
fomenting terrorism in the West on one hand, and on the other hand the group
using its available resources to defend and shore up the mini-state. To the
extent the overseas terrorist threat has materialized, it has been far more a
matter of inspiration and ideology than of organizational dependence on a piece
of real estate in the Middle East.
Third, the ISIS problem will not go away
when the mini-state is extinguished. The problem will continue in the form of
the ideology and the inspiration, and probably also in the form of insurgency
in the lands in which the mini-state has existed.
This last point leads to the further
observation that as far as not only anti-Western terrorism but also instability
in the Middle East are concerned, what matters most is not how hastily the ISIS
mini-state is crushed but rather what arrangements are left on the ground after
The more that chaos, disputes, and
uncertainty prevail there, the more that ground will remain fertile for violent
extremism, whether under the ISIS label or some other brand. The rest of the
political, diplomatic, and military story of conflict in Syria still has a good
way to go before providing a more promising and stable alternative for what
comes after ISIS. It would not be advantageous for the anti-ISIS military
campaign to get ahead of that story. Speed in this case is not necessarily
All of this is in addition to one of the
biggest downsides of U.S. forces assuming more of a military role: playing into
the ideology and propaganda of ISIS and similar extremists, who appeal for
support with a message about how the United States uses its armed might to
intervene in Muslim lands and to kill Muslims.
This set of issues will be an early test
for new national security adviser H. R. McMaster.He is a highly regarded
military officer whose professional focus, from study of war in Vietnam to the
practice of war in Iraq, has been on what use of force and how much force are
needed to achieve an objective of military victory. His natural inclination, as
much as of others, may be to take the swift extinguishing of the ISIS
mini-state as such an objective and to treat it more as an end than a means. A
more thorough and careful performance as national security adviser would
instead broaden the policy question and take into account the considerations
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose
to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why
America Misunderstands the World.