The jihadi menace reaches a high water mark

“From the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East.” So says Walter Russell Mead, the distinguished historian of American foreign policy (who reportedly has said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008).

The fanatical group in question is, of course, ISIS. According to Mead, who cites analysts at the Brookings Institution and the Washington Institute, ISIS is more radical, better organized, and better financed than al-Qaeda. It commands the loyalty of thousands of dedicated fanatics, including many with Western and even U.S. passports. And it now controls some of the most strategic territory at the heart of the Middle East.

Given these advantages, Mead concludes that ISIS is “much better positioned to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe than any of its predecessors.” And though it is preoccupied for the moment in Syria and Iraq, when the dust settles ISIS’s desire to attack the U.S. and Europe will likely be at least as great as that of its predecessors who did attack us.

How did ISIS attain its current status? It flourishes in Iraq because President Obama pulled our troops out. Without our influence and presence in Iraq, the military rotted and ISIS filled the vacuum. ISIS flourishes in Syria in part because Obama dithered (to use Mead’s word) over aiding its rivals in the Syrian opposition.

What can be done now? It’s not clear that anything much can be done in Iraq. Obama likes to talk about “exit strategy.” But the issue now is reentrance strategy. Obama does not seem to have left us with a viable one in Iraq. I assume this was deliberate. In any case, there may be no exit from our exit strategy.

What happens next? Mead says we should watch two developments. First, will ISIS’s momentum carry forward when it reaches the Shia districts of Iraq? It may. According to Mead, the “militias and parade groups currently marching around Baghdad and thumping their chests may not be very effective in the field, and it is not yet clear whether the Iraqi Army will fight any better on Shia home turf than it did in the north and the west.” After all, “the Sunni crushed the Shia in Iraq for decades and there is no law of nature that says they can’t do it again.”

But even if ISIS halts or is halted before it reaches the Shia districts of Iraq, it will still control a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. Barring a major rollback, the threat to the U.S. will remain significant.

This brings us to the second key development to watch, namely the political balance that emerges within ISIS held territory. Mead observes:

Tribal leaders, Baathist activists, other religious groups and their allies outnumber the true ISIS cadres by an immense factor. It is far from clear whether the rebel region in Syria and Iraq will be under one increasingly powerful and effective government or whether it falls apart into factionalism and internal power struggles.

For ISIS to impose real order and authority on the population under its military control, and to build up its forces from a guerrilla army to a force capable of imposing dictatorial religious rule on a large civilian population, would be a victory as difficult and in some ways more astonishing than the triumph of its forces on the ground.

Accordingly, Mead suggests that “the U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.”

Right now, though, it’s difficult to imagine that the U.S. has any credibility left with the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq. We did, but Obama squandered it. Any fissure between ISIS and the Sunnis will have to increase significantly before the U.S. — presumably under a new president — is again taken seriously by Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

As Mead says:

Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed. . . .

Six years into what the President and his supporters thought would be an era of liberal Democrats seizing the national security high ground from enfeebled, discredited Republicans, the outlook is much grimmer than the President’s team could have dreamed.