Confronting the Islamic State—and the Limits of American Power

Confronting the Islamic State—and the Limits of American Power
Islamic State fighters wave an Islamic State flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle, Fallujah, Iraq, March 20, 2014 (AP photo).

Russia’s deployment of military equipment and personnel to Syria, combined with revelations about failed U.S. efforts to train and equip Syrian rebels, has rekindled criticisms of the Obama administration’s strategy against the self-declared Islamic State. The U.S. approach has been attacked from both sides of the political aisle, characterized as mission creep by some and weak incrementalism by others. During last week’s presidential debate, in particular, most of the Republican presidential candidates vied to burnish their national security credentials by vowing to expand U.S. military operations to defeat the Islamic State. However, the urge to “do something” in Iraq and Syria is a slippery slope to another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East that the U.S. would be better off avoiding.

In 2014, President Barack Obama pledged to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, but over a year later, the administration’s admittedly “incomplete” strategy has failed to even contain the group. Absent a political solution, the Pentagon appears reticent to get more involved in Iraq, and even more so Syria, while the White House has been bullied into expanding the U.S. air war by hawks who equate Obama’s prudence with timorousness. But there are good reasons to be wary of an expanded American intervention in Iraq and Syria.

First, despite the Islamic State’s repulsive and brutal conduct, it is far from an existential threat to American national security, as candidates eager to appear strong on defense have asserted. Confusing a messy, regional civil war with an existential threat to America is a mistake.

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