Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton Carter is likely to assume his new role during uncertain times in American foreign policy. As Obama’s fourth defense chief, Carter will be inheriting an international landscape that drastically differs from the way things were in 2008. The war in eastern Ukraine has intensified and has ramifications for the U.S.’s relationship with Russia, ISIS threatens Iraq and Syria, and the future of America’s involvement in Afghanistan remains unclear.
Carter addressed each of those concerns during a hearing with the Senate Arms Services Committee today. When asked if he’d support supplying arms to Ukraine, Carer vaguely responded, “I am very much inclined in that direction.” He also clarified that he would be in support of sending “lethal arms” as opposed to non-militaristic aid. In terms of his Afghanistan policy, Carter claimed that he supports the removal of troops by 2016, but would recommend changes to Obama’s withdrawal policy in order to avoid a repeat of what occurred with ISIS in Iraq.
Following the recent capture and execution of two Japanese hostages as well as the brutal burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, ISIS has once again legitimized itself as one of the most pressing international threats. Carter’s tone regarding ISIS was similarly aggressive. He claimed that “lasting defeat” of ISIS will be a top priority of his if his nomination is approved. “It’s important that when they get defeated they stay defeated,” Carter said.
Carter also failed to lay out any specific policies that may lead to such “lasting defeat.” That wasn’t the point of the hearing, but it’s difficult to believe anyone who discusses ISIS in such absolute terms without a concrete plan for their defeat. The organization is small — estimates vary, but most intelligence officials agree the number of fighters is somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000. As of last August, it was estimated that ISIS controlled roughly 90,000 square kilometers of land in Syria and Iraq, about the equivalent of the size of Jordan. They’re attempting to establish a caliphate, a religious idea that’s been around for centuries but has seen increased support due to social media recruiting tactics and opportunistic actions in response to political instability in the Middle East. ISIS may be small compared to the U.S. military, but it has remained strong. The government, meanwhile, has remained clueless as to how to deal with it.
ISIS also represents the fundamental problem the U.S. has been facing since 9/11. The War on Terror is an unwinnable war, and changing the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t stop religious extremism from thriving there. Defeating ISIS would mean defeating jihad, and it’s nearly impossible to completely eradicate such an intangible concept. ISIS is the most well-organized representation of religious extremism that the world has seen in centuries, and fighting against the momentum of its ideology could take much longer than American military officials might hope. Airstrikes don't solve everything.
When asked how the administration will view success in the fight against ISIS, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough had a long list of outcomes. “Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise. And that’s exactly what success looks like,” McDonough said. If that’s what success looks like, it will take a long time for the “lasting defeat” that Carter described to occur. And it’s uncertain whether American military intervention will be the best route to reaching those goals.
The war against ISIS will almost certainly outlast the Obama administration, but Carter’s approach to the group during his two years as Secretary of Defense could have significant implications as to how things will progress. CNN’s Ken Ballen writes that “an effective response against extremism can only come from Muslims themselves.” ISIS, he argues, is not an issue for the American government. The U.S. military can, however, make an impact by working with local Muslim governments and forces that oppose ISIS, exposing corruption by supporting rather than leading.
That argument has some merit — U.S. foreign policy against religious extremism has been failing for the decade and a half that’s followed 9/11. Extremist groups like the Nazis were stopped through foreign intervention and, to a degree, U.S. military power. But the added step of Germany’s own self-regulation of that extremism was necessary in order to ensure that such an organized outbreak would be unlikely to occur again. Racism and nationalism still persist, but they’re less likely to take hold the way they did 80 years ago. The Muslim community and Middle Eastern governments need to take similar action in order to ensure that religious extremism never comes to fruition in the way ISIS has. If only it were so simple.
Carter’s nomination is widely expected to be approved, and the new Secretary of Defense has made it clear that ISIS will be considered one of the American military’s top priorities. The small but resilient ISIS, therefore, has legitimized itself as one of the largest threats facing the world’s largest superpower. ISIS is a hybrid of a guerilla-style terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda and a traditional military that’s attempting to establish a new state in a clearly defined area. Given the unorthodox nature of ISIS’s military structure, weapons, money, organization and advancement across the border of two unstable nations, devising a strategy against them will be one of the most challenging tasks for the Obama administration and the administration that succeeds it. Obama has already admitted that his administration doesn't have a real strategy. The U.S. has the military might to make drastic changes in the region and perhaps even stop ISIS from establishing a caliphate, but any promises of “lasting defeat” when it comes to religious extremism should be regarded with much skepticism.