To defeat ISIS we need to be successful on two fronts, ideological and military.
I believe the ideological front is much more important. I say this because ISIS draws recruits on a worldwide basis and is able to attract recruits from those who are disenfranchised, alienated from society and otherwise not attached to the society they are drawn from. If we do not offer a better ideological alternative we will be undermining our effort to defeat ISIS.
We have to ask whether our military actions are doing more harm than good, due to the way they are carried out. If we destroy a country’s infrastructure and cause large numbers of civilian casualties, that will feed the recruitment of new terrorists, both for their own safety but also because they have no alternative. If we view and act in relation to a country based on our desire to control their resources or markets and in the process support a despotic government to be hated by their people, we are feeding ISIS recruitment.
We must win the ideological argument, that our society is a better alternative than ISIS. How much hatred are they able to target us with? If we project an immoral society with a vast gap between rich and poor we are feeding ISIS. If we offer no economic pathway for our young people and replace that with imprisonment, we are feeding ISIS. If we sacrifice truth for money we are feeding ISIS. If we refuse to accept refugees into our society or shun and ostracize those who already live here, if we engage in anti-Muslim rhetoric, we are feeding ISIS. If we saddle our students with so much debt that they are unable to look forward to living a decent and fulfilling life, we are feeding ISIS. ISIS is not a moral alternative, but if they are able to demonize the western way of life they will draw recruits among those who are ostracized from our society, to wage war against us.
We cannot bomb entire cities into rubble as a military method. This would kill many, many innocent people who are themselves victims of ISIS and would result in ISIS recruiting more recruits than we may have destroyed. While we need to conduct targeted strikes against ISIS and protect ourselves from attack, we need to build and protect our moral argument, because without it we will fail. There is some visceral reaction that causes us to think that we can lash out with our military might and somehow solve the problem. That is a mirage and will leave us hopelessly and forever mired in a war while we erode our own quality of life and freedoms here at home.
Yes, we need to vet incoming refugees and this is not a perfect science. There will be failures. We have perhaps a greater threat from people who already live here. We cannot hold refugees indefinitely in holding camps here or abroad since that is just a breeding ground for ISIS recruits. So, we need to balance our risks, and process refugees into our country with reasonable speed and take care to assimilate them into our society. We want a perfect solution but that does not exist.
We need to protect our way of life, our constitutional rights, and not give in to fear mongering that will result in the erosion of our freedoms and convert us into a police or military state. If we do, we will have lost what we are fighting for and ISIS will have won.
There is no risk-free approach to winning this war. There will be casualties. We need to look at the long-term and find an approach that will result in truly winning, and winning means defeating ISIS while not destroying the way of life that we set out to defend. Winning also means that our actions must not feed a net increase in ISIS operatives. It becomes almost a mathematical argument, so if you are not convinced on a moral basis, then perhaps the math will do the trick. We must avoid doing things that, in the end result, only strengthen the enemy.
We need to actively pursue building a better, more egalitarian society. There is, in my view, a link between our levels of unemployment and poverty and our susceptibility to terrorist activity whether from ISIS or the homegrown variety. We also need to expand our social and economic web so that it includes all people, regardless of skin color or religion.
The danger is that fear will stampede us into all the wrong decisions, immoral military action, erosion of constitutional protection, Islamophobia, rejection of refugees. All of these actions are ostensibly protective and defensive but they will ultimately erode our moral base and result in creating more disenfranchised people who are easy recruits for ISIS. All they have to say is “Look at how they treat Muslims or Blacks or Native Americans” “Look at how a small group of elites rule the country with their money.” Look how they have invaded and bombed our own countries?” “ What opportunity do you think you will have in that society?” We need to be able to counter these recruitment arguments by offering a more egalitarian and moral society that shows that it cares for all of its people. To do otherwise plays into ISIS hands and is self-defeating.