Combating ISIS: The aftermath

By Eric Ham - All Voices
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member of Defense & Foreign Policy

As the U.S.-led coalition picks up steam in its efforts to decimate and degrade ISIS, coalition members need to be forward-leaning with an eye toward state building when the mission is complete. 

Too often, the United States has seen its gains quickly wiped out due to a lack of post-war planning. Iraq and Libya are prime examples. Iraq is unstable and now America is redeploying troops there three years after the US combat mission ended. After Moammar Gadhafi’s demise, Libya degraded from a weak to failing state. As a result Americans saw the US consulate in Benghazi overrun, leaving five Americans dead including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Since the horrific killings, the US has removed all American personnel and the consulate is now overrun by jihadists.

Libya, along with Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed America’s glaring inability at performing effective state-building. US policy is too dependent on a military posture for confronting global challenges with very little investment in wide-ranging diplomatic measures. During Barack Obama's presidency, relationships with key allies and strategic partners — who might aid in postwar efforts — have been pushed to the breaking point. Moreover, talks over Iran’s nuclear program have yet to yield any tangible results. US diplomacy has yielded mixed results at best throughout the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring. However, the formation of a 50-nation coalition confronting ISIS provides the U.S. a tremendous opportunity at a diplomatic reset. 

The appointment of retired Army Gen. John Allen as special envoy to the coalition signals a willingness to reshape US foreign policy with the State Department acting as a co-equal partner with the Pentagon. Secondly, securing funding and support from Congress signals to the world a unified approach to combating this deadly terror group. These efforts, along with a robust and engaged coalition will go a long way in restoring America’s credibility in the region. However, it will take much more than just military muscle. Once the bombs cease and ISIS is no more, the US and coalition partners will be tasked with helping rebuild and reshape a region that has been wracked with war for more than a decade. 

It is during that time, US diplomacy will need to be front and center. Obama and Congress will need to articulate a vision and provide the funding allowing the State Department to lead the effort in helping rebuild a region with hallmarks ranging from inclusive governments; equality for women and girls; a robust educational infrastructure; and a healthy economic climate able to sustain the state and its citizens.

The U.S. and its coalition partners cannot bomb their way to a peaceful and sustainable Middle East. Only by directly confronting the systematic and burdensome vehicles that mark state failure will the region find and ultimately attain a lasting peace. 

The global community is facing the perfect storm with many of the world’s fragile states imploding under the heavy weight of years of inaction descending into complete failure. While the crisis spreads like wildfire from Central America to West Africa, the Middle East, given heavy US engagement, has become ground zero first. A myriad of challenges posed by ISIS are threatening neighboring countries creating a host of national-security challenges for the West. 

After more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, with billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, with little to show for it, it is high time the US and its allies find a new way to combat the problems in the Middle East and North Africa region. The American public’s weariness — combined with continued challenges of a still reeling domestic economy — makes any concerted and deliberative engagement in the region a daunting sell for lawmakers. 

During the past four decades, there have been litanies of successful nations that have turned the corner from fragile and weak to thriving and dynamic states. India fought its way back from the brink of implosion from widespread famine and poverty; South Africa, only 30 years ago seem destined for an internal race war before cooler heads prevailed by abolishing apartheid; and most recently, Myanmar. Formerly Burma, it was once a paragon of dysfunction and turmoil. However, it recently elected Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyin Su Ki a member of the Parliament and normalized relations with the United States. 

The US will need to conjure the resolve to confront the messy battles it will face in a post-ISIS world. Demographic pressures, inequality, failed security apparatus, and criminalization and delegitimization of the state — all hallmarks of weak and failing states — will be on the agenda when the last bomb is dropped and the coalition declares victory. These problems can only be solved through effective diplomacy and the plethora of tools that go with it. This includes: development capabilities, governance and adherence of the rule of law, effective trade agreements and other soft-power tools. 

Congress will need to authorize and appropriate funding to the State Department and the president and the secretary of state will need to outline a vision and lead the rebuilding effort.  Clearly, as Obama has stated emphatically, this will not happen overnight. From the looks of things, it will be in a post-Obama administration, and maybe beyond the 45th US president. 

Countries decimated by decades of violence, myopia, and neglect will experience many setbacks but the US and its allies must commit to a long-term strategy. South Korea offers the perfect case study. The nation underwent the “Seoul Spring” in 1979, and through tremendous upheaval that saw hundreds killed and the assassination of President Park Chung Hee. However, after nearly three decades of turmoil, its economy is one of the largest in the world. 

State fragility and its many symptoms is what is plaguing the Middle East and attempts at addressing these problems solely via the military do not measure up. To complete the equation a diplomatic solution is required. But, to do that the United States must first address deficiencies within its own decision-making apparatus. The Marshall Plan was the last great success of state-building. Perhaps many of those tools are outdated; lucky for policymakers, diplomacy is a tool that gets better with age. 

Eric Ham is a national security and political analyst. A former national security adviser to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, he was co-chair of the Fragile State Strategy Group in Washington, D.C. He is co-author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding, and is a contributor to The Hill Newspaper. Follow him @EKH2016.

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