‘We cannot win this war by killing them,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on February 17. “We need in the medium and longer term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it is lack of opportunity for jobs . . . ”
Twitter now has another hashtag: #JobsForISIS. Coming only days after the videoed slaughter of Egyptian Christians, Harf’s comments seemed to many to epitomize the Obama administration’s ISIS delusion.
Not so fast. Yes, the Obama administration has made foreign-policy ineptitude its doctrine – from Ukraine to the Middle East. But Harf has something of a point: Ideology is not the only reason that ISIS has won a global following. Consider whom ISIS is targeting in its propaganda efforts: socially disaffected young men from across the world. It tempts them with visions of unrestrained excitement tied to an ordained purpose. This strategy — I’ve described it as Grand Theft Auto in the flesh — is at the core of why so many thousands now march under the ISIS banner. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s global jihad provides ISIS fighters with inspiring theology, but broader social concerns make many young men open to this theology in the first place.
These social concerns are primarily of two sorts. First, there are those (predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East) who are angry at the endemic corruption and the lack of social mobility in their country; They see ISIS as a path to glory. Then there are those in the West who, imprisoned in poverty and judged for their “otherness,” are wooed by the malevolent charisma of Wahhabi and Salafi clerics. Consider what’s happening in Britain, France, and much of mainland Europe. The social foundations for Salafi-radicalism are clear. Conversely, America’s inclusive national identity means that comparatively few Americans have joined ISIS.
But this isn’t solely about sociology. It’s also about history. Recent history proves that countering Salafi-jihadism takes more than military force. After all, just consider how the U.S. defeated ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). That victory wasn’t achieved by force of arms alone. Instead, it was enabled by a decisive military campaign — against AQI leaders and senior non-commissioned officers — joined with a broader political, economic, and social campaign. By offering low-level AQI fighters (and also some higher-ups) an attractive employment alternative, the U.S. gutted AQI of its managers and much of its personnel. With this approach, AQI’s bloody antics slowly lost their mystique. Eventually, devoid of leadership and social credibility, AQI was unveiled as a fanatical band of crazed murderers. It collapsed under the weight of its own brutality.
This isn’t to say that the Obama administration’s ISIS strategy — if we could even call it that — is fit for the purpose of either victory through force or victory through jobs. For one, the president’s reliance on Iranian proxy militias to fight ISIS is stunningly short-sighted. The president’s AUMF request is also problematic. Moreover, until President Obama admits that ISIS takes root in the rot of political Islam, he’ll never be able to restrain its westward metastasis.
Even recognizing all this, we shouldn’t pretend that bullets and bombs will bring victory. However warped, ISIS is a political actor. Destroying it requires our own political agility. So far, it’s in short supply.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for the Daily Telegraph. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.