The Islamic State has taken control of Ramadi in Iraq, and Islamic State franchises are popping up all over the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Pressure is growing for the United States to “do something” as quickly as possible.

Some of America’s friends and partners are beseeching the United States to step in with greater force. Some of the “usual suspects” at home, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, have joined the cry, urging the administration to put U.S. combat boots on the ground and even go global and go big in a military campaign against the Islamic State. Pundits and administration critics argue that the current policies under U.S. President Barack Obama are failing and that the strategy of using “other people’s armies” carries grave risks for U.S. national security.

Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
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Is the option now for the United States to once again go to full-scale war, this time globally, with a new global adversary? Is it time to go all out, expand global military operations, build up America’s forces, and take the fight to the Islamic State before it takes the fight to us? As Mark Antony says in Julius Caesar, is it time to “cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

Not so fast. As the famous sage Yogi Berra once mused, we may be facing “déjà vu all over again,” especially for those old enough to remember American blunders during the Cold War and in particular its military interventions in what was then called the “Third World.”

Expanding to a full-court game of global, military whack-a-mole against a presumed global adversary in the Islamic State poses, for the United States, potentially serious costs, risks, and long-term consequences, especially those of the unintended variety. Before the Obama administration succumbs to the natural political and bureaucratic impulse to deepen its commitment to reversing the rising tide of the Islamic State throughout the Greater Middle East and South Asia, it needs to heed the lessons of history and develop a limited and sustainable strategy, one that incentivizes and supports, but relies on local and regional capabilities, not a strategy that puts the United States on the front line of every confrontation. The downside of the global military game could be the expansion of the very adversary the United States seeks to defeat, the retreat from the field of the governments directly threatened by the Islamic State and other organizations, and, in the end, less security for the United States.

The first step toward a more sustainable and sensible strategy than global whack-a-mole is to identify the true problem. The Islamic State is the most obvious manifestation of the challenge, and in one sense, it is being portrayed as an increasingly global cancer, with new tumors appearing in new countries and regions every day. But appearances can be deceiving or, worse, dangerously misleading.

The United States has made the mistake before of assessing the adversary inaccurately. During the Cold War, the United States overextended itself, at a great cost in human blood and treasure, because it confused homegrown nationalism, anti-colonialist movements, and wars of national liberation with the spread of Soviet-style communism. The comparison is apt, because some of these extremist challenges do not pose a direct threat to U.S. interests.

As terrorism expert Daniel Byman has pointed out, the Islamic State poses less of a threat to the U.S. homeland than al Qaeda and more of a danger to the stability of countries in the Middle East, including such friends and partners as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon, and to countries like Libya and Yemen whose internal convulsions create humanitarian problems and opportunities for jihadis to operate and undermine the stability of their neighbors.

Equally important is that many of the terrorist attacks and extremist operations of Islamic militants in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere are not directed, planned, controlled, or financed by the Islamic State, which, in contrast to al Qaeda’s early ambitions, seems not to operate as a planning center for a series of franchises around the world. Rather, the Islamic State grows in response to local grievances fueled largely by poor governance, corruption, and tribal, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.Islamic State grows in response to local grievances fueled largely by poor governance, corruption, and tribal, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. In reality, the so-called provinces of the Islamic State have adopted the brand because of its cachet among Islamic extremists and as a way to attract more resources and recruits. Unlike al Qaeda, the Islamic State makes virtually no effort to assert operational control over its self-declared provinces, and in the view of many experts, many of these provinces consist of nothing more than a small number of disorganized members.

American hawks dismiss this local focus and call for a more muscular and global approach, quoting Leon Trotsky’s maxim “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” to galvanize support for their views. Making little distinction among the groups in their desire to “let slip the dogs of war,” they would bundle all these countries and organizations together, allow fear and emotion over the Islamic State’s cruel acts to overwhelm reason, and deploy U.S. ground forces. The net result of such a military campaign would turn the Islamic State’s desire for a regional caliphate into a global confrontation with the United States in the lead and with all the recruiting potential that would provide for the extremists. A series of conflicts that might otherwise be manageable at the local and regional levels would put a bull’s-eye on the back of every U.S. soldier or Marine, on every embassy, and even on American citizens. It would reinforce the argument that some Islamic extremists make — that this is indeed a holy war against the American crusader.

U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years, a large U.S. military presence in the region, and American support for what the Islamic State sees as “apostate” states have already fanned, rather than extinguished, the flames of Islamic militancy. It is already difficult to overcome the history of U.S. action in the region. Recipients of U.S. assistance, such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are all too willing to hype the threat of Islamic radicalism — not only to deflect attention from their own governing abuses and to justify harsh repression in dealing with opponents of the regime, but also to extract more funds and weapons from the United States.

Hans Morgenthau, the great apostle of realism, once warned American leaders to “never allow a weak ally to make decisions for you.” Past U.S. policy has already done so, arming and training fundamentally weak but authoritarian allies who stand by and wait for Uncle Sam to ride to the rescue. Arming the feckless and then riding to their rescue around the world guarantees free-riding, a growing confrontation, and less U.S. security.

The direct introduction of U.S. ground forces in the struggle with the Islamic State is likely to produce nothing more than additional recruitment incentives for the militant group and free-riding by countries in the region. The starting point for a more reasonable and realistic strategy is for the United States to apply judicious force (see the recent raid that captured a leading Islamic State planner), but to leave the military confrontation to the countries most directly affected. This is indeed “leading from behind,” because the United States has much less of a stake in these confrontations than do the countries at the heart of the conflict. What are the elements of such a strategy?

First, beware of making the United States the global 911 against the Islamic State. That commits the United States to an endless string of battles, some of which are not critical, and it only encourages misbehavior and shrinking violets among those whose security is truly at stake. Governments being challenged by Islamic State-linked groups should bear primary responsibility for addressing the threat. Local parties and local forces need to be engaged, first and foremost. Their foot soldiers — not Americans — should be on the front lines; it is their stability that is at stake.

Second, these local “physicians” need to “heal themselves.” Movements like the Islamic State do not come from nowhere; they are a response not only to decades of humiliation, but also to government failures (just ask former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki).Movements like the Islamic State do not come from nowhere; they are a response not only to decades of humiliation, but also to government failures (just ask former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki). As many terrorism experts and commentators have noted, the anti-Islamic State coalition can’t kill its way to success; that is a recipe for a global game of whack-a-mole. Governments under threat need to work hard to alleviate the conditions that give rise to violent extremism before they dial 911-USA, or the cycle of violence risks being never ending.

Their kinetic operations need to be embedded in a larger strategy of improved governance, including serious anti-corruption measures, reforms that foster the rule of law and accountable security sectors, equitable economic growth, and inclusive participation in the political system. The risks in a “war only” strategy are on full display in Iraq, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Shiite-led government has failed to enact promised political, economic, and social reforms to bring alienated Sunnis back into the fold.

The third core element of a strategy focuses on the region. Here, too, it is the neighborhood — its security, stability, and development — that is at risk when radical Islamic terrorism takes root in the region. Moreover, countries in the region, not the United States, often have the intelligence, military and logistical assets, cultural knowledge, and potential governance to tackle the root causes giving rise to local provinces of the Islamic State. As Tom Sawyer knew, sometimes it is best for America to “let others paint the fence” because they have more at stake in success or failure and greater leverage and comparative advantage than the United States.

This is especially true in areas that do not engage vital U.S. national interests but where a successful outcome is congruent with U.S. interests. Leading from behind may have been an infelicitous phrase, but nothing is inherently wrong with it when American interests are limited, when others have more value to add, and when leading from the front is counterproductive to solving the problem and imposes risks and costs that the American public is not willing to bear. In fact, this kind of leadership is, in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “smart power.”

Fourth, as opposed to throwing more money and troops at the problem, U.S. assistance in these struggles needs to become more conditional as a way to incentivize the reforms that will reduce the attractiveness of extremism. For decades, the United States has thrown money at security establishments in many of the countries that now face an Islamic State threat. Not only have those funds manifestly been wasted — the forces are not what they should have been, given the assistance — but in some countries (the 2012 coup in Mali comes to mind) they have proved counterproductive. The assistance risks creating military forces that threaten local security, rather than providing it, thus encouraging the kind of reaction that the Islamic State can exploit and use to recruit. Assistance will be needed, but the United States needs to start setting far more stringent conditions and requirements on its anti-terrorism and governance assistance than it has done in the past.

Inevitably, such a strategy does not guarantee perfect success. For those who argue that the United States cannot guarantee the outcome unless it is fully militarily engaged out front in the global battle, welcome to the realities of international relations. Only a hegemon can guarantee a specific outcome. The United States is not a hegemon and cannot dictate outcomes — George W. Bush tried, and the outcome was nothing short of a disaster. Moreover, seeking to guarantee a perfect or even good outcome risks producing the exact opposite of the desired goal. The world is imperfect; outcomes are not always optimal; and the United States must hold its nose and accept them because the alternatives are much worse. The United States may find itself facing such a world in the Greater Middle East, where the Islamic State plays a role, for some time, in confrontation with other countries in the region and gains greater footholds. Accepting that reality, rather than resisting it, may be a necessary part of a U.S. adjustment to the reality that it cannot order events or shape realities around the world. Security at home and safety for American citizens become the first priority.

The downsides of the United States’ jumping in to declare itself the “global leader” in a military confrontation with the Islamic State are extreme: The group is thrown into the briar patch of a direct confrontation with the United States, and the country’s putative friends and allies stand by and hold America’s coat while the country takes on the fight that is rightfully theirs, with some assistance from the United States. Local and regional strategies are the heart of the alternative and, with governance reforms, the only sure guarantee of success.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.