The Internet is a source of constant concern for parents in making sure that their children are not exposed to age inappropriate content, but interestingly the newest addition to the constantly expanding list of dangerous sites is the news media. Browsing the news on any given day almost guarantees coming into contact with one story of archaic sadism and murder or another. New headlines roll out unceasingly: “American Journalists Beheaded with Machete,” “Kurdish Women Sold as Sex Slaves to ISIS Officials,” or chillingly in the past few days, “Jordanian Pilot Burned Alive.” How could anyone even begin to explain such atrocities to a child? “Don’t worry, Honey, it isn’t real, it was only a movie,” just won’t cut it anymore.
The Islamic State is known by many different names, but will be referred to as the Un-Islamic State for the remainder of this article. The Un-Islamic State has repeatedly proven that it is inherently anti-Islamic, and to call it otherwise is an insult to Islam; a noble and peaceful religion too often distorted by radicals and the uneducated. Americans abhor the Un-Islamic State; about that much there is consensus; where we differ is simply in our approach to the problem. Everybody seems to have an opinion, and Americans generally occupy one of three main positions on how to deal with the crisis, only one of which has any real chance of success.
The first is to stick one’s head in the sand, and carry on with life as normal: the “not my problem” option. Those who take this stance are not sympathizers, nor are they cowards; they are simply fatigued, overwhelmed, and most importantly misinformed. They are the Neo-Isolationists, and they appear to ignore every lesson of history. The Neo-Isolationists do not believe the United States has any business getting involved so far abroad, or do not care to be involved in another one of “The Government’s Oil Wars.” They represent the portion of the American people who Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “are tired of war.” While their concerns are legitimate, their conclusions and consequent solutions are misguided. Even if we were to stick to the idea of protecting our own borders, and therefore ignore and forfeit the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent peace-loving people in the region, the ensuing chaos would become an unchecked recruiting and training ground for terrorists with targets set on the United States. Just as in the Second World War, Isolationism is an illusion. As Secretary Kerry put it, “fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.”
The second is the call for a demonstration of the American military’s awesome power, with a “glorious” all out invasion culminating in undisputed victory. With great pleasure, we would tear down every inch of the Un-Islamic State in a matter of hours. Admittedly there are few individuals on the political stage explicitly advocating for this yet. As time rolls on, the atrocities pile higher, and the pressure mounts on our leaders to solve the problem, however, the compounding factors will likely escalate the crisis to a point where greater military action is called for.
According to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland with regards to a poll in October of 2014, “Support for sending U.S. ground troops into combat operations against ISIS forces is growing, although a majority continues to oppose ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq or Syria…But that could change in a hurry if the situation worsens in Iraq.” The Neo-Interventionists seek to rid the world of the Un-Islamic States’ evil immediately, whatever the cost, preferring to shoot now and think about the clean up later. Idealists, patriots, and sensationalists alike are drawn to this ideal, because on the surface it seems to be the only moral path. How could anyone see what Daesh is doing and not feel that swiftly bringing them to justice is a moral imperative? The stance is held by the most lionhearted, selfless, and genuinely heroic Americans. The Neo-Interventionist stance is also unfortunately doomed to failure.
The compulsion for action over inaction and willingness to be sent into harm’s way to protect those who cannot defend themselves is indisputably a noble position. Unfortunately, Western presence in the Middle East for the past few decades teaches that bad people can be killed and weapons can be taken, but no army has the capability to destroy an idea. The United States could likely shatter the Un-Islamic State’s military capacity within a matter of hours, but what then? What does the previous decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us?
Finally, there is the third approach. The nuanced approach is born of the ability to watch an allied brother in arms burn alive in a cage, be consumed by rage and grief, but then wipe away the tears of frustration and proceed to rationally ask: “How can we ensure that this never happens again?” As difficult as it is to resist the instinctive urge to demolish the enemy in righteous retribution and show the world that we will never accept such injustice, world leaders on the frontlines of the struggle understand that the underlying enemy we face is the very idea of violent extremism. The Un-Islamic State, while unquestionably evil, is simply a physical manifestation of the intangible idea that anyone could choose to embody. Defeating an ideal is an endeavor that theorists and scholars have dedicated their entire lives to understanding, but at its most elementary level combating a paradigm requires much more than bombs and bullets.
Convincing a generation that violent extremism is not the answer requires the interface of economics, politics, human capital, and controlled military force culminating in psychological influence. The fight is no longer to sway governments, but to convince the people. To win this war, world leaders must manage to persuade, and not force. In order for us to generate change, people must feel they have come to a conclusion themselves, and not been provided a set of beliefs by an external power. Failing to understand that we must outmaneuver and not just outgun the Un-Islamic State will only lay the foundation for the next militant organization to take up the mantle of terrorism, and produce further waves of traumatizing videos, pictures, and headlines that flood the news media keeping children up at night.
Daniel Sharp is not a spokesperson, nor does he represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States government.