Is America Winning the War on ISIS?

The real issue is ideology, not ISIS

by Benjamin Gordon

People leaving the Syrian town of Baghuz, the last territory held by the Islamic State. Credit Felipe Dana/Associated Press

Is America winning the war on ISIS?

On the one hand, the United States forces have just succeeded in repelling ISIS from its territorial control in Syria. And ISIS appears to be on the run in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

On the other hand, ISIS still maintains a military threat. ISIS may draw on more than 10,000 fighters capable of waging terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Further, it may have up to $300 million in hidden cash to fund its activities, according to a February report by the United Nations.

But isn’t there a deeper issue? ISIS is just one manifestation of a broader ideological threat to the United States. Islamic fundamentalism, according to many experts, represents a minority of the Islamic population. Still, even at just 20% of 1.8 billion, that implies 360 million who subscribe to jihadism.

What does it mean for the United States, and what should we do?

Newsmax asked me to do an interview on this very topic. Please click here for the video. To summarize:

  • American foreign policy with respect to Islamic fundamentalism began in 1980, after the fall of the Shah of Iran. During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. viewed jihadism as an ideological threat, much like the communist threat.
  • During the first Bush Administration, the U.S. faced a dilemma. What to do with political groups that gained power through free elections, but then attempted to pull up the ladder behind them? The Bush Administration tried to walk the line, advocating, “We support ‘One Man, One Vote,’ but we oppose ‘One Man, One Vote, One Time.’”
  • During the Clinton Administration, the litmus test changed. The key question: did you have blood on your hands? As reflected in Algeria, jihadist ideologues like the Islamic Salvation Front were viewed as acceptable, but their military allies at the Algerian Islamic Group were not.
  • Ever since then, the U.S. has struggled to define the battle. Is it a “War on Terror,” implying a fight against tactics, or is it something deeper?
  • Today, during the Trump Administration, the conversation has shifted to ISIS. But is that the real issue?

CFR President Richard Haass spoke for many when he said that “public statements by administration officials about the purposes of U.S. foreign policy have been inconsistent or simply ambiguous.”

In my view, ideas matter. We should focus on the underlying ideology, and attempt to win on the battlefield of ideas. America and the world will achieve our shared goals when subsequent generations of Muslims come to a broad consensus that is compatible with values of liberal democracy, including majority rule, minority rights, and broad freedoms. This is a harder battle, but a more important one. Otherwise we will simply end up fighting subsequent generations of ISIS, without ever getting to the root issue.

So what exactly does this mean we should do?

In my view, the Trump Administration should reexamine two key distinctions: between Islam the religion and Islam the political doctrine, and between moderate and extremist fundamentalists.

Religion vs. political doctrine. Washington should distinguish the traditional religion of Islam from the radical political applications of fundamentalists. The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has been careful to exempt the religion of Islam from their criticism of Islamist terrorism. That’s laudable and appropriate. However, they then cloud this distinction by ascribing “traditional values” to the fundamentalists. The current brand of Iranian-style fundamentalist Islam is not new — its predecessors include the Kharijites, Isma`ilis, and Fedayan-i Islam, to name three reactionary groups who also sought revolution — but its objective is anything but traditional. Its defining purpose is to overthrow and radically to transform the existing order. The U.S. government should not cede the mantle of Islamic tradition to the revolutionary ideology of fundamentalist Islam.

Moderate vs. extremist. Violent and nonviolent fundamentalists are two sides of the same coin: both subscribe to a staunchly anti-Western ideology. As the mechanism by which radicals justify their violent actions, the ideology of fundamentalist Islam is directly linked with the tactics of military terrorists. The violence litmus test is woefully inadequate given the inimical views of Islamic fundamentalists toward democracy, the Arab-Israeli peace process, human rights, and many other U.S. objectives in the Middle East. Instead, the test ought to include support for human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, democratization, and Arab-Israeli peace, as well as opposition to terrorism.

In sum, U.S. policy ought to delineate clearly the differences between religious tradition and political radicalism, and reject the fallacy that fundamentalism contains both pro-Western moderates and anti-Western extremists. A consistent approach to the ideological threat of Islamic fundamentalism, as opposed to just the military threat of ISIS, will permit the U.S. government to develop an effective framework for advancing American policy objectives.

For more information, please see Benjamin Gordon’s publications in the Middle East Quarterly, his video interview on America’s Forum for Newsmax, and elsewhere at his blog.

Ben Gordon, CEO of Cambridge Capital and BGSA. Investor in logistics and supply chain technology. Published at Fortune and CNBC.

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