Let's Defeat ISIS Without Destroying Our Values

By Lee Hamilton
Dec 23 2015

In the closing weeks of 2015, the Islamic State, or ISIS, has dominated our nation's foreign policy discourse, making up the majority of last week's Republican and Democratic debates, as well as President Obama's recent Oval Office address.

"The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it," Obama said in his Dec. 6 remarks to Americans. "We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That's what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power."

Not surprisingly, Republicans seized the opportunity in the aftermath of the President's address to slam his policies for dealing with ISIS and not keeping America safe. Several candidates seeking to replace him at the White House called for more aggressive actions, though it wasn't clear what bold, new measures they might take, while others took great umbrage at the gun safety measures proposed by the president in response to recent tragedies, such as the killings in San Bernardino, Calif.

Missing from all of this tough talk is a clear-eyed view of what the threat is that we face, and what we what we are willing to do about it.

ISIS does not constitute an existential threat. Recent developments clearly show ISIS is losing its edge against its rivals by several metrics, like the loss of territory, financial strains, a marked decline in messaging and competition from its rivals.

The chance that an American will be killed by a terrorist remains miniscule -- some estimates have it at around one in four million. Even so, terrorism presents a serious challenge. Americans are deeply concerned and fearful about the threats, but should not get caught up in an exaggerated fear of what currently amounts to a low risk.

President Obama has said we will "destroy" ISIS, but that will be extremely hard to do. Apt comparisons to the ISIS challenge would be our country's lengthy fights against cancer, drugs, poverty and mental illness. Indeed, the war against ISIS will be long and generational, and it's not likely to end in a ticker tape celebration in Times Square. Our talk about a "war on terrorism" can be misleading, as it suggests that it will end with a V-J Day type outcome. We've now been at this "war" almost 15 years, and while we've experienced some major successes, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, the radical extremist threat still remains.

So, after an accurate assessment of the threat, we need to identify and come to consensus over a clear objective. The rhetoric against the Obama Administration is quite robust in its harshness, but the president and his critics aren't all that far apart on policy. The critics have yet to produce a constructive alternative to the administration's approach. Essentially, they argue that we need to do everything that we're doing now, only better.

To accomplish our shared objective of defeating ISIS, we need a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy to shrink and roll back the area ISIS fighters control, sustain pressure on their terrorist cells and take their brutal ideology head on.

Most policy-makers and political analysts rule out the deployment of large numbers of U.S. ground forces in places where ISIS has a strong foothold. They agree that more American boots on the ground would only serve to exacerbate the challenge we face. And yet many well-intentioned Americans continue to believe that putting our impressive military to work will solve all of our problems, which it won't. Military pressure is part of the equation, of course, but we also need to recognize the limitations of armed force.

Some additional troops, in small numbers, will be key to a stronger push against ISIS, deployed against carefully selected targets. Militarily, the fundamental problem is that, while we are joined by over 60 countries in a coalition against ISIS, not a single one of those nations has exhibited a willingness to put boots on the ground. Still, we must continue to seek a reliable and effective ground force. As important as it has proven to be, airpower alone will not defeat ISIS. Currently, the U.S. is carrying out about 95 percent of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and about two-thirds of these attacks in Iraq. We need more help from our coalition partners, and should not be expected to shoulder such a disproportionate burden.

Critics of the president have questioned his unwillingness to create and enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. So far as I've been able to determine, our leaders, including military leaders, oppose this option, pointing out how difficult and costly it would be, and how the risks of creating and enforcing a no fly zone would exceed the benefits to be gained by it. However, I would look carefully at the possibility of establishing safe havens on the eastern Syria border to alleviate the horrible suffering endured by tens of thousands of Syrians and others. I want to know how many American troops that would require, what the risks and benefits are, and which nations, if any, might help us.

To energize the coalition, our strategy should include more aid and intelligence to friendly Arab nations, and strengthening the progress we've made in bankrupting ISIS.

On the home front, we must defend our borders (an effort in which we have invested an enormous amount of time, money and energy), strengthen law enforcement capabilities, confront homegrown radicalization and work closely with Muslim communities in this country.

Within the world community, we have to robustly and confidently sell our own ideology. Americans have a good story to tell, but we must do it with conviction and persistence, rallying the Arab world behind our values and countering ISIS' medieval ideology. Our fundamental strength as a nation is a free and pluralistic society. Selling that message, and promoting our own values with fervor is a key ingredient of our strategy.

ISIS is the current terrorist threat facing our nation, but even if we destroy this threat today, a similar group of radical extremists will surely take its place tomorrow. So to confront a challenge of this complexity will require a comprehensive political solution -- including trying to resolve the civil war in Syria and the other problems in entire region, and the tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that continue to serve as a powerful asset for ISIS.

At the same time, we will need to recognize our limitations in dealing with major, centuries-old challenges. The U.S. will not unilaterally define the future of a region characterized by hatred and competing ideologies, almost to the point of irrationality.

All of us should feel confident that freedom is more powerful than fear and that America will overcome this challenge if we embrace a united effort that understands the threat, provides clear strategic objectives and a determination to achieve them.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.