We should be more deeply involved in peacemaking efforts.
Whenever war or upheaval shakes the Middle East, the U.S. feels compelled to intervene. The pattern is familiar: We see a force we dislike, we intervene to crush it, and then it returns in another form, more radical and more violent. Only if we break this cycle can we hope for a stable Middle East.
Americans want to put an end to the horrific depredations of the Islamic State, or ISIL. It is a noble instinct. Intervening with military force, however, would not stop the current war, but prolong and intensify it.
Wars cannot be won in the air, so assaulting ISIL would require a ground attack. Any local forces we train will be unreliable because they will naturally fight for their own interests, not ours. American troops would be eternal outsiders. Once victorious, they would have to hold the territory they captured — something they failed to do in Iraq a decade ago.
The United States cannot rescue countries in the Middle East that are unable or unwilling to rescue themselves. As long as it tries, local people will have little incentive to resolve their own conflicts.
We should not ignore the appalling human suffering afflicting the Middle East. In fact, we should be more deeply involved in peacemaking efforts. Our refusal to deal with the Assad government has contributed to Syria’s catastrophe. The U.S. has tools to help end Middle East conflicts. Military power is not one of them.
ISIL terrorists would love to drag us back into the Middle East. Their grotesquely theatrical crimes, recorded on video and transmitted to the world, are intended to provoke Americans into intervening. This would be the greatest gift we could hand them. With American forces back in the Middle East, ISIL would be able to pose as defenders of the Muslim homeland against infidel attackers. That would bring new waves of money and recruits.
ISIL does not threaten America’s vital interests. A campaign to destroy it might succeed temporarily, but would sow the seeds of future conflict and possibly attract terrorist retaliation. We best protect our national security by staying out of this war.
Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, is author of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.