The unspeakable savagery of ISIS makes for gory headlines on a daily basis and has sparked renewed interest in the notion that Islamist fundamentalism is a potent international phenomenon that presents an existential threat to most of the international community.
While ISIS’s seizure of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria is perhaps the most dramatic expression of that threat, there are significant manifestations in other places as well, pointing to a broad effort to spread Muslim hegemony over much of the globe.
The threats to the United States and Israel are palpable. Sovereign and unrestricted havens for terrorists envisioning 9/11-type attacks are plainly in the offing. The U.S. has a critical interest in stanching the Islamic march and must also allow Israel to pursue its security interests as it sees them. Arab states have begun to forcefully react to the threat and America – whose participation will be key – should do so as well.
Almost under the radar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates recently carried out air strikes against Islamist militias seeking control of Tripoli. According to senior U.S. officials interviewed by The New York Times, the strikes represent a major escalation between supporters and opponents of political Islam and are part of a region-wide struggle for power, with old-line Arab leaders seeking to thwart Islamist insurgents.
Reportedly, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc that seeks to counter Islamist influence in the Middle East. It has long been an open secret that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt were in covert sympathy with Israel in its fight against Hamas, which for all intents and purposes is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the governments in Riyadh, Amman, and Cairo view as dedicated to their overthrow.
Significantly, the U.S., according to the officials who spoke with the Times, was caught by surprise and has thus far been left standing on the sidelines in all of this.
It’s well past time for President Obama to recognize that his withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq left much unfinished business and indeed set the stage for the successes of ISIS in that country. To be sure, there were valid reasons for wanting to leave Iraq, but setting an arbitrary date for doing so encouraged Islamic militants and pulled the rug out from under the Iraqi government.
Similarly in Syria, the failure to pursue the ouster of Bashar Assad, despite his violation of Mr. Obama’s proclaimed “red line” concerning the use of poison gas, left the insurgency to percolate. Here again there were certainly complications and it was not easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys. Indeed, the insurgents were a politically polyglot group. But, as in Iraq, drift was allowed to set in and ISIS used it to its full advantage.
The U.S. remains the world’s only true economic and military superpower. But this country’s ability to influence the course of events in regions around the world has taken a not insubstantial hit, thanks, in large measure, to Mr. Obama’s conviction that Americans were weary of war and foreign interventions and would therefore support downsizing the military.
But that approach failed to take into account the phenomenon of a virulent Islamic movement seeking to reestablish Muslim hegemony in as many spots as possible. Nor did it foresee the creeping challenges coming from China and Russia. China has mounted several land grabs in Asia and is slowly building an enormous military capacity while Russia has flexed its muscles in Georgia and the Ukraine and is seeking to influence events in the Middle East and Asia.