On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State—just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq—cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.
The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.