For the West to prevail against ISIS is more possible than is commonly recognized. But we may have to change our thinking.
Perspectives on ISIS
ISIS is vulnerable. In spite of its terrorist attacks, it is not a security threat to any Western country. It is not even a threat to any Islamic country unless they become failed states into which vacuum ISIS could conceivably move.
It is in the interest of almost every functioning country in the world to prevail against ISIS. To degrade it and finally eliminate it will take patience. It can’t be bombed into oblivion. ISIS exists mostly in cities with large civilian populations—not that it is ever welcomed there. We can’t count on too much help from its neighboring Islamic states because they either are weak or have conflicting agendas. But there are things we can do to help the Islamic world sort out this intra-mural conflict for themselves and at the same time reduce the terrorist threat to ourselves.
Perspectives on Ourselves
A first important step is to realize that there are things in the world that we can’t control. Our soldiers are not particularly welcomed in Islamic states. They consider their territory holy ground and to them we are unwelcome infidels. Furthermore, there are ethnic dynamics within these countries that no amount of force from us will change. This limits our military prerogatives and it is best that we respect that. Fortunately, we don’t have to control everything. Sometimes restraint is a better strategy than attempting goals that we cannot reach especially when we are not experiencing a grave security threat.
A second perspective is to acknowledge that we are being dragged into an internal Islamic struggle and we will suffer casualties. Unlike in our previous wars, some are apt to be here at home. We should strive to minimize terrorism through good defense and vigilance. We should rightly mourn all such tragedies and do all we can to prevent them. But we will continue to make serious mistakes if we become obsessed with being 100% safe—because that is impossible, and our demand for it prevents rational action. We cannot be 100% safe from traffic accidents, fatal illnesses, and many other kinds of losses. In fact, since 9/11 more Americans have died from American terrorists, such as in school shootings, than from Islamic terrorists. We need to become realistic about this. To prevail against ISIS we will have to put several pieces together.
How we can prevail against ISIS
Military action is part of the package but alone it cannot be successful. Containment, support of allies, and gradual rollback are helpful. That is probably all we can and should do on that level. We should be very careful about collateral damage because this is used against us and is a strong recruiting tool.
Non-military tactics also can help. They include shared intelligence, better cyber warfare, interfering with ISIS’ sources of money and supply lines, and the presence of US Special Forces on the ground to train, guide bombings, and gather intelligence. This is already going on and we should not discount its importance or effectiveness.
However, our opportunity for huge strategic impact is in the propaganda war. Perhaps the most important goal to prevail against ISIS is to stop or at least drastically slow ISIS’ recruitment efforts. If Time Magazine was right about its figures of ISIS’ strength it means that since May, 2015, ISIS has brought in 13,500 new recruits. It is urgent that we stop this. If their losses continue even at the present rate but their recruitment rates were seriously slowed, they would soon be in dire straits. That would do more to end their threat than military operations.
How could this happen? By matching and surpassing the very successful ISIS propaganda machine. We should contrast the atrocities of ISIS with the freedom and opportunity in the West. We should constantly beam that information into the Muslim world while being careful not to impose our own culture. We should carefully study ISIS recruitment techniques and learn how to counter them. This includes their very effective use of social media. They spend an enormous amount of effort working with possible recruits personally on the internet to persuade them to join their cause. It is no mystery that many young people suddenly drop everything and travel to Iraq or Syria. They have been recruited over time and with great patience. We need to match that effort. It is long and painstaking but actually cheaper than military action.
We should do everything possible to allow moderate Muslims to be heard, both here and in the Islamic world. We recently heard a Turkish moderate make an effective case for a peaceful version of Islam and argue that the present violence will lead nowhere and be destructive to the Islamic world. Such messages ought constantly to be beamed though all electronic means to the Islamic communities in places vulnerable to recruitment as well as into countries where ISIS threatens directly.
However, to prevail against ISIS our trump card is humanitarian efforts. Nothing more dramatically undermines the anti-Western rhetoric of Islamists than that. Humanitarianism is right on its own merits, but we must do it prolifically and not keep it a secret. We must convince the world that it is one of our abiding values. That means opening our doors to refugees—certainly with vigilance and screening—and publicize their stories of being received, cared for, and helped on the road to a good life here among us, including with religious freedom. We also need to work with our other allies to do the same. If every country did its fair share to welcome and care for refugees, no one country would need to bear an inordinate burden. It is heartening that there have been some steps in this direction in Europe and shameful that here in the US, several states have closed their borders to Syrian refugees. This is handing groups like ISIS another propaganda tool.
There are other humanitarian interventions we can make such as we did in the joint Kurdish-American rescue of the minority Yazidis in August 2014 when they were threatened with wholesale genocide. We should take such opportunities whenever they occur.
We should help countries such as Jordan that are accepting huge numbers of refugees to quickly integrate them into their country’s mainstream. By providing opportunity for economic and social advancement to refugees and disaffected Muslim residents in ghettos of hopelessness around the world, we could greatly decrease ISIS’ attractiveness. It would be in our self-interest and the self-interest of many countries to spend the time, energy, and money necessary to do this. This is far less costly than letting ISIS recruit young people and having them bring that terror back home with them—and more effective than trying to stamp out terrorism with bombs and bullets. History has shown that wicked ideologies cannot resist visions of goodness and hope. It wasn’t so long ago that the Soviet empire came crashing down without a shot being fired.
This is a complex and very different kind of conflict that we are used to. Though it is not our war, we are being dragged in, partly as a result of our recent misadventures overseas. To deal effectively with this requires an array of different approaches rather than mere military solutions. Terror introduces the element of fear into the conflict. We need to resist the impulse to overreact to it. Instead we need to keep in mind that ideological wars are never won through military action alone. The battlefield is also in people’s hearts and minds and an important part of this war has to be won there.
 “War on ISIS Update: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” Time Magazine, Feb. 22/29 2016.p.16-17