The Islamic State (ISIS) has set a modern-day "emergent threat" record by going from obscurity to existential global menace in what seems like a matter of weeks. But as with most overnight sensations, there was a longer gestation period outside of the limelight. And like most military threats of the past few decades it was nurtured by, you guessed it, us.
The US of course has a history of arming erstwhile allies only to have them become enemies in later conflicts. So when we started helping the opposition to Syria's dictatorship (thus producing ISIS), more than a few people saw parallels to past policy mistakes. Here's a good HuffPo piece comparing America's 2013 military aid to that rebellion with the arming of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan that eventually spawned Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Now perhaps the most surreal episode of all has begun, as the US contemplates expanding its current anti-ISIS air strikes to the entire region, with apparent disregard for national borders and in alliance with a new Muslim "coalition of the willing".
The long-term strategy for defeating the militants includes having the United States and its allies reach out to Iraq's neighbors, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.
"This is not just about us," Dempsey said.
Such a coalition could "squeeze ISIS from multiple directions in order to initially disrupt it and eventually defeat it," he said.
The militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has shown itself to be so brutal that Iraq and the U.S. should be able to find "willing partners" to join efforts to defeat the militants, he said.
But military power won't be enough, Dempsey said. The strategy must take a comprehensive approach that includes political and diplomatic efforts to address the grievances of millions of Sunnis who have felt disenfranchised by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, he said.
The Islamic State had capitalized on the discontent of Sunnis to win support among some segments of the population in Iraq. The United States said it plans to expand support for Iraq's government as it shows signs of building a more inclusive government. Iraq's Parliament has nominated a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has pledged to build a new, more inclusive government that will address the concerns of Sunnis and other groups.
"Unless all those things come together military power won't make a difference," Dempsey said. "There has to be political, diplomatic, regional, aggressive outreach to those Sunnis to convince them that ISIS is not the path to their future."
Military power will be part of the strategy and the United States has sent military teams to Iraq to assess the effectiveness of Iraq's armed forces. The teams have given the Pentagon a window into the effectiveness of units within Iraq's armed forces, Dempsey said. About four divisions of Iraq's military collapsed in June when the Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
"We've got a pretty good idea of which ones we can actually assist and enable should they decide to go on the offensive," Dempsey said.
Presumably in return for their help the coalition members will expect serious high-tech weaponry and a lot of cash. And assuming the campaign succeeds and Islamic State is destroyed as a geographic entity -- not a guarantee by any means -- the region will be left with some ambitious and now even more heavily-armed states. What they'll do with this new-found power is anybody's guess, but it probably won't serve the interests of regional stability.
They might fight among themselves over local issues, maybe pulling the US in on one side or another. They might turn their attention to Israel, which would definitely pull the US in. Or they might funnel their now-surplus arms to independent operators, creating Islamic State 2.0. One thing they almost certainly won't do is sit back and relax while their military hardware fades into obsolescence.
So the US in particular and the West in general finds itself in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma. Which is generally what an empire gets when it blunders around intervening in places it doesn't understand and compounding past mistakes with new bigger ones.
For readers who notice that the above describes US economic policy as well as its foreign adventures, exactly. Both policies derive from the sense of omnipotence that comes from having an unlimited printing press and an unwillingness to admit that the situation is hopeless. In each case the marketplace will impose that judgment, but not, apparently, until we get one more go-round in each arena.