America's attention has been focused on ISIS for some time now, culminating in the address by President Obama to the nation concerning the actions he has decided to take. Always remembering that I am mostly ignorant of the history of the region, totally ignorant of its languages, and only fitfully aware of the details of the religious beliefs being invoked as a justification of the actions of ISIS, I should like to raise a question that I have not heard discussed. I welcome comments, particularly from any readers who are more knowledgeable than I [which doesn't require much!]
In the decades after World War Two, international relations was dominated by a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union, under which umbrella of relative safety both empires pursued a variety of regional expansions, interventions, and wars, some successful, such as the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran by the United States and the long-run domination of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, some not successful, such as the Viet Nam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a quite different situation emerged, posing a serious challenge to those in the United States who wished to continue the enormous investment in the U. S. war machine even in the absence of a credible threat to the United States [assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Soviet Union ever posed such a threat, something I seriously doubt.] Out of the confusion of those early post-Cold War years there emerged the doctrine of "asymmetric warfare" involving threats from, and wars against, what were called "non-state actors."
The central idea of asymmetric warfare, pushed especially by Donald Rumsfeld and in many ways adapted from the thought of Mao, is that in conflicts between great powers like the United States and stateless collections of "terrorists" like Al Qaida, it is, counterintuitively, the weaker party that has certain advantages. As interpreted by the neo-cons, this asymmetry demands even greater defense expenditures [naturally] together with a fundamental reconfiguration of U. S. military forces -- more Special Forces, and Psy-Ops programs, less in the way of big muscle-bound agglomerations of hardware designed to win World War Two.
There is much to challenge in this vision of the new world order, but the central insight is not at all stupid. Whether one considers attacks by small groups of individuals against the persons and property of large states -- such as the 9/11 attacks we memorialize today -- to be a form of warfare or not, it is quite true that the attackers, despite their small numbers and material weakness, have certain advantages. The most obvious advantage they possess is that they have no home address, if I may speak somewhat facetiously. Precisely because they are not the forces of territorial states, the target nation has great difficulty knowing against whom to retaliate, or indeed even where to direct that retaliation.
Enter the ISIS, which alone among all of the "terrorist' groups that have launched attacks against people and property, aspires to be a state, indeed, to be a Caliphate. ISIS looks now to be making a strenuous effort to seize, hold, and transform into a state a fairly large swath of contiguous territory some of which is in Iraq and some of which is in Syria. [I keep putting the word terrorist in scare quotes because it is a matter of political evaluation and ideology, not of fact, whether a group of people are terrorists, as opposed, let us say, to freedom fighters. That said, ISIS seems to me from the reports I have read to be a group completely without any redeeming social value whatsoever, so I would be quite happy to see them killed.]
My question, to put it as simply as I can, is this: If ISIS succeeds in its ambition to become a state, do they not then become easier rather than more difficult to deal with? As a stateless "terrorist" group, it is amorphous, difficult to locate, difficult to engage. As a state, it would be a small, militarily weak regional power that ought to be quite susceptible to the usual sorts of military, economic, and diplomatic pressures and containments. It would still be a horror to the population it ruled, but that would not be a problem for the United States. It would pose a threat to the surrounding Muslim nations, but that would be their problem, and one that perhaps they would finally do something about.
This is, to be sure, a cold-eyed heartless view, but I think that is an appropriate attitude for the United States to take to the rest of the world, at least until that longed-for day when this country can be counted on to weigh in on the correct side of disputes abroad, rather than always on the wrong side.
I would be curious to hear your reactions.