French President François Hollande is making the rounds of the world’s capitals, jet setting between London, Washington and Moscow with several meetings in-between.
He is engaged in a full-throttle effort to convince leaders of a plain and simple plan. Immediately eliminate the Islamic State that's claimed responsibility for the massacre of 130 innocent men, women and children in Paris. That the jihadist state needs to go is not in dispute. It is creating chaos and mayhem throughout the Middle East, parts of Africa and beyond. ISIS is an aggressively metastasizing cancer that threatens Europe and North America.
Before a global coalition follows the French headfirst into this Indiana-sized caliphate located in the former Iraq and Syria, however, we need to answer questions related to competing political and territorial concerns.
The last time the U.S. led from behind the French, the message was also seemingly plain and simple. Remove Muammar Gaddafi by aiding, abetting and arming Libya's al-Qaeda militias and the country will take care of itself as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood assumes power.
History proved them disastrously wrong. Libya quickly collapsed into a failed state with Gaddafi's massive munitions stockpiles – and very likely some of the weapons and training that NATO gave to the Libyan jihadis opposed to Gaddafi – finding their way into Syria to form the early core of ISIS.
Indeed, arguments could be made that none of the interventions by the West in the Middle East and northern Africa turned out well. The common lesson learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya is that nothing is as simple as it looks. Every situation is difficult with many different considerations that all carry grave ramifications.
Let’s examine all of the intended outcomes as well as the possible unintended consequences of current decisions.
Whether we like it or not, ISIS currently plays a role in the balancing act between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. What happens to the equilibrium once it is removed from the equation?
Do the U.S. and Europe propose to formalize the Shia crescent of dominance from Tehran, through Baghdad to Damascus, ending in Beirut? Russia is the coalition’s primary benefactor, so the axis now also includes Moscow. Is this how the West envisions that part of the world coalescing? Or does the West see some other as-yet undefined coalition of Sunni forces filling the void? How would U.S. allies such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey respond to a Shia crescent?
Have the leaders responsible thought about possible contingencies, and how to achieve better outcomes?
Have we considered that the very rise of ISIS, with broad support from local Sunni states, was itself a reaction to the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army as the only credible counterweight to the Shia rulers in Tehran? These states, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, will and must have a say in what happens next. They will not allow a nuclear-armed Iranian hegemony to expand unchallenged. They recognize that the U.S. has been an unreliable ally at best, as it facilitated the overthrow of Sunni regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and allowed for the advancement of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
Further, the Middle East battleground is crowded with competing ethnic, sectarian and tribal interests, most of which harbor jihadist sympathies. So, with which should the U.S. ally itself against ISIS: the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra? The Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham? Are we helping Bashar al-Assad cling to power by fighting side-by-side with Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp? What about our relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
The Obama administration has already demonstrated its proclivity to side with the wrong party – al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood – in Libya and Egypt. We should not allow ourselves to become drawn into such mistakes again, especially when the ability of the West, Russia and Iran to fully destroy ISIS – or its jihadist ideology – is not entirely clear right now.
We need to think of this as a game of chess in which leaders strategize three to four steps ahead into a future without ISIS. Current decisions will have a domino effect on subsequent outcomes.
More often than not, we are playing soccer of the worst kind, the bunch ball sort in which we watched our children all at once chase the ball and try to kick it downfield at the same time with little success. It is such a sad but true comparison, but how else do you explain losing the war after more than 14 years of endless battles since 9/11?
Pete Hoekstra is the Shillman Senior Fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Clare M. Lopez is the Vice President for Research & Analysis at the Center for Security Policy.