ISIS and the perils of moral clarity

Moreover, this is not a replay of the Cold War, where we had an ideological struggle across the Third World about the most efficient and just economic and political order. In the Middle East, the ideological battle is occurring within the boundaries of these states, and the United States is only a voice in some of these battles. I have never been convinced we had the authority to win a battle of ideas within the Muslim world because we are so hated and distrusted; that battle, as many have argued, will be won or lost by forces inside those societies rather than by us. For this reason, we should stay focused on our enemy (al Qaeda), try to avoid making new ones by lumping other groups in with al Qaeda and now ISIS, and look for ways in which we can helpfully, but within our limits, tilt the balance of those internal battle in the Middle East towards those who would produce inclusive and democratic governments. In other words, don’t try to recast a real fight (against al Qaeda) as a global ideological struggle in which we will exhaust ourselves trying to win a war of ideas in a region which distrusts us and our ideas.

Miller argues I am so concerned about mission creep that we “might even make the mistake of trying to defeat the group.” But I never said it would be a mistake to defeat ISIS. There is an argument to do so because (1) a quasi-state with the ideology of ISIS threatens our interests; (2) its existence will dismember Iraq and Syria; and (3) it would provide a rich training ground for operatives to strike the United States and Europe. I said we need to be careful not to let the conclusion that ISIS is evil allow us to sleepwalk into a policy that we have not thought through or are prepared to sustain. After the horrific assassination of Foley, the Obama administration leapt from “we are just trying to keep the status quo and hopefully save the Yezidis” to “ISIS must be crushed.”

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